In Dogged Pursuit of Failure

The following policies have all failed consistently, for decades, yet are still actively pursued, with little or no evidence to suggest eventual success.

  • Economic sanctions (Cuba, Iran, Iraq, etc.)
  • Counterinsurgency (Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan, etc.)
  • ESL education (actually slows language acquisition)
  • War on Drugs (raises price, attracting more supply)
  • Agricultural subsidies (negative ROI, other market distortions)
  • Government housing (as opposed to successes like special zoning)

I’ll add more as I think of them — there are plenty — but it’s interesting to ask why these things would persist indefinitely, when they always fail.  A big reason may be the lack of transparency that results from a lack of careful, consistent, widely published measurements.

11 Responses to “In Dogged Pursuit of Failure”

  1. Eric Says:

    Don’t you have a counterfactual problem? You assert a better outcome could be obtained by pursuing the opposite policy, but I question whether actual examples of implementation of the opposite policy exist for some of these.

    >> The alternative (what?) to economic sanctions succeeded where?
    >> The alternative (what?) to counterinsurgency succeeded where?
    >> The alternative (what?) to the “War on Drugs” succeeded where? (large 1st world country, not Amsterdam please)

    Without counter-examples, one can argue that the alternatives would have failed even worse. If we say the state has universally prevented testing alternatives, I vote for a try of anarcho-capitalism :-)

  2. admin Says:

    I presume you’re being ironic, but just in case not…

    The post did not assert the “opposite” policy would have a better result.

    It really is true that big policy questions have the counterfactual problem. History rhymes but doesn’t repeat. As a result, it’s hard to argue inductively, especially when trying something new, because we lack applicable, statistically significant data. Does Keynesianism “work?” We still don’t know. Same problem.

    The examples I chose are so painfully bad that it becomes easy to argue deductively rather than inductively. It also becomes easy to show that doing nothing would be better. Not the opposite, but simply nothing. If ROI is negative 100%, then investing less gives a better outcome, automatically.

    The Amsterdam comment implies some cognitive capture (maybe jokingly), i.e. if we aren’t carpet bombing Colombia, then we must be offering free needles and subsidizing opium dens. In past posts, I have argued for a narrowly defined middle ground: suppress demand, not supply.

    That argument is deductive rather than inductive, and is straightforward.

    Since the current policy is totally ineffective, any cheaper policy (such as education) is automatically superior, even if still totally ineffective, because the loss is reduced.

  3. Rob Says:

    There is a good article written in 2007 by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon that partially addresses a few of your bullet points.


  4. Eric Says:

    The actual “investment” for the Vietnam war was $686B, plus 58,000 American lives, plus over 1M Vietnamese lives. The “return” was the loss of South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, plus prestige, etc. Your alternative do-nothing “investment” would have been $0. But according to domino-theory proponents, by not exhausting the Commies in Vietnam your “return” would have been the loss of the above plus Burma, Thailand, Malaya, Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand. However you compute ROI, it is presumably worse in the do-nothing case IF you believe the domino-theory proponents. So the argument is still not about ROI, but counterfactuals.

  5. admin Says:

    Kahneman: good as usual. Surprised he doesn’t expressly mention that leaders may attain their position through a particularly extreme individual tendency toward risk-seeking behavior, a tendency that persists after they “arrive.” But I guess he is more about biases in the population as a whole, as opposed to individuals.

    Counterfactual problem: I’m repeating myself, but yes, big policy questions commonly suffer this, for lack of sample size. The way out, if any, would seem to be deductive rather than inductive, but that places great demands on controlling one’s bias (hence the invocation of Kahneman).

    Making this up as I go (as usual), but for example, could communism realistically be spread, by force, by countries with no naval power (Russia and China), across oceans, to the four most prosperous countries in east Asia (in 1960 these were AU, NZ, JP and PH)? If it couldn’t be spread there by force, then did a military commitment make sense? It doesn’t wash. Or shouldn’t have.

  6. Eric Says:

    What I’m driving at is that business-style ROI doesn’t always work as a measure here. My understanding is that business ROI is measured versus the “do-nothing” alternative of the risk-free (T-bill) rate. Here action-proponents argue the ROI on the do-nothing alternative is strongly negative, akin to buying low fixed-rate T-bills during hyperinflation.
    Of course the analogy breaks anyway, since really “investing” $0 gives a division-by-zero error. It also assumes my money belongs to the govt, for it to invest in whatever alternative it sees best.
    To be clear, I don’t fully subscribe to the domino argument (though even Chomsky buys some of it). But for many of your examples the action-proponents will argue that the ROI of the do-nothing alternative is strongly negative. That is what you would need to disprove.

  7. Eric Says:

    As a way of looking at the math, what is the ROI of a fire department? Here data should be available. Spend $S in a year, suffer $D fire losses. Increase spend to 2*S, only suffer 0.8*D losses. Drop to S=0, suffer 10*D losses.

  8. admin Says:

    I don’t see ROI as inherently business-oriented.

    Opportunity cost is the crucible for all decision making. ROI (maybe “expected NPV” is more precise) is shorthand for the attempt to measure opportunity cost. As I see it, business and finance are merely narrow applications of this general view of decision-making, not the other way around.

    To compare alternatives, you would subtract one expected return from another, and see which is better. But I’m not arguing for precise calculations. In business and elsewhere, hairsplitting precision is a path to error. I’m sure you remember Feynman’s comment that it’s far more important to be clear than precise. Instead, you want to pick obvious cases where a result is so far outside the margin of uncertainty that there is no question what to do.

    This is what I meant earlier by saying that even if two potential investments have a return of minus 100% — outcome is no different than if you had simply burned the money — you can choose between them, because the one with the smaller outlay results in a smaller total loss.

    The examples in the post are intended to be something like that. Each of them has specific, stated aims. Everyone agrees that not 1% of those aims have been achieved in decades of trying. Thus, on the face of it, it is uncontroversial to say these expenditures resulted in outcomes little different from simply burning the money. In some cases it’s worse: spending a dollar on ESL is equivalent to burning more than a dollar, because the rate of language acquisition becomes slower than if the student had joined a regular class.

    In the case of the dominoes, this was known to the leadership by the mid-1960s at the very latest. That’s why the Pentagon Papers were such a bombshell to the public — LBJ was admitting that containing communism had little to do with our reasons for remaining in Vietnam.

    The level of fire protection is a much harder question, because fire departments actually put out fires. But I will bet anything that somewhere on the county payroll is a statistician/economist that runs exactly this calculation to determine how many fire trucks we need.

  9. Eric Says:

    Again, expected return and ROI don’t mathematically make sense here. With an investment you hope to end up with a positive return (get back more than your initial investment), and your maximum potential loss (-100%)is the amount you initially invested. But a fire department isn’t trying to turn a profit, and the potential loss due to fire is much greater than your “investment” in fire protection. A fire department where the $losses due to fire equaled the $cost of fire protection might be considered a great success, not an utter failure equivalent to just burning the money.

  10. admin Says:

    We might need to have a real live conversation about it, to see where we are missing each other’s points. ROI and NPV can be used to compare alternatives, even when returns are negative. “Returns” can encompass whatever scope makes the most sense.

    In the fire example, the scope of “return” is loss prevention. The NPV of a given fire department is the present value of expected loss prevention minus the present value of the costs to have a fire department. ROI would state it almost the same way.

    The goal of ESL is to cause foreign language speakers to acquire English faster and more easily than they would do in normal classes. The scope of “return” might be some measure of the economic benefit of more rapid English acquisition. In this case, that return is negative, because ESL students learn English more slowly than non-ESL. The NPV is then the present value of expected economic benefit (which is negative) minus the present value of the cost of the program. If you get rid of ESL, the NPV calculation is zero minus zero, which is improved, with high confidence, hence you should get rid of ESL. (If I saw data to suggest that ESL students actually learn English much faster, then there would be basis to change my mind.)

    So there is nothing inherently business-oriented about this. It is just a way to make decisions.

    What is absolutely true, though, is that NPV is a minefield, highly sensitive to tiny estimation errors in certain factors. So you need a huge margin of safety to be able to say anything with confidence.

  11. admin Says:

    BTW, if you have any last comments, get them in quick, because as soon as this weekend I may freeze this site in carbonite. Will post shortly to explain.

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