Archive for the 'Decision theory' Category

Courage, honour, valour

For as long as I can remember, I have had to endure lectures from men in uniforms – policemen, soldiers, teachers, clerics – about courage and honour.  I recall a particular egregious lecture from a cleric on the cowardice of men who had long hair. (For next millennium readers, this was part of a larger argument accusing anyone not supporting US and Australian involvement in the second Indo-Chinese war of cowardice.  Of course, it required great courage for a 17-year-old conscript to openly confront such logically specious, and morally tendentious, nonsense.)   The forces of conservatism always accuse those who confront them of cowardice, it seems.

The Hillsborough coronial verdict shows just what true courage and valour and honour are:  It is fighting for justice against all odds, against the overwhelming sentiment of those in authority and of society in general, against friend and peer, as well as journalist and foe, against recalcitrant judges and lying policemen.  But courage is also admitting when one has made a poor decision, and bravely facing the consequences of that decision.  South Yorkshire police have spent 27 years and millions of pounds lying about what they did at the stadium before and on and after that day, and lying about who was responsible, and maligning the dead and their families.  It is not too late for these men in uniform to finally reveal some courage and accept the consequences of their negligence, their lack of preparation, and their poor judgment.  For valour and honour, however, they lost any opportunity to show those long ago.

Vienna life


Just do it, already, Mr Prez!

Norm Ornstein in The Atlantic on criticisms of Bam that he’s not as good at cajoling and arm-twisting as was LBJ, not as good at shooting-the-breeze as was Clinton, and not as good at hard-ball negotiation as was Reagan.   An excerpt:

But there was one downside: the reactivation of one of the most enduring memes and myths about the presidency, and especially the Obama presidency. Like Rasputin (or Whac-A-Mole,) it keeps coming back even after it has been bludgeoned and obliterated by facts and logic. I feel compelled to whack this mole once more.

The meme is what Matthew Yglesias, writing in 2006, referred to as “the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics,” and has been refined by Greg Sargent and Brendan Nyhan into the Green Lantern Theory of the presidency. In a nutshell, it attributes heroic powers to a president—if only he would use them. And the holders of this theory have turned it into the meme that if only Obama used his power of persuasion, he could have the kind of success that LBJ enjoyed with the Great Society, that Bill Clinton enjoyed in his alliance with Newt Gingrich that gave us welfare reform and fiscal success, that Ronald Reagan had with Dan Rostenkowski and Bill Bradley to get tax reform, and so on.

If only Obama had dealt with Congress the way LBJ did—persuading, cajoling, threatening, and sweet-talking members to attain his goals—his presidency would not be on the ropes and he would be a hero. If only Obama would schmooze with lawmakers the way Bill Clinton did, he would have much greater success. If only Obama would work with Republicans and not try to steamroll them, he could be a hero and have a fiscal deal that would solve the long-term debt problem.

If only the proponents of this theory would step back and look at the realities of all these presidencies (or would read or reread the Richard Neustadt classic, Presidential Power.)

I do understand the sentiment here and the frustration over the deep dysfunction that has taken over our politics. It is tempting to believe that a president could overcome the tribalism, polarization, and challenges of the permanent campaign, by doing what other presidents did to overcome their challenges. It is not as if passing legislation and making policy was easy in the old days.

But here is the reality, starting with the Johnson presidency. I do not want to denigrate LBJ or downplay his remarkable accomplishments and the courage he displayed in taking on his own base, Southern Democrats, to enact landmark civil-rights and voting-rights laws that have done more to transform America in a positive way than almost anything else in our lifetimes. And it is a fact that the 89th Congress, that of the Great Society, can make the case for having more sweeping accomplishments, from voting rights to Medicare to elementary and secondary education reform, than any other.

LBJ had a lot to do with the agenda, and the accomplishments. But his drive for civil rights was aided in 1964 by having the momentum following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the partnership of Republicans Everett Dirksen and Bill McCullough, detailed beautifully in new books by Clay Risen and Todd Purdum. And Johnson was aided substantially in 1965-66 by having swollen majorities of his own party in both chambers of Congress—68 of 100 senators, and 295 House members, more than 2-to-1 margins. While Johnson needed, and got, substantial Republican support on civil rights and voting rights to overcome Southern Democrats’ opposition, he did not get a lot of Republicans supporting the rest of his domestic agenda. He had enough Democrats supporting those policies to ensure passage, and he got enough GOP votes on final passage of key bills to ensure the legitimacy of the actions.

Johnson deserves credit for horse-trading (for example, finding concessions to give to Democrat Wilbur Mills, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, to get his support for Medicare), but it was the numbers that made the difference. Consider what happened in the next two years, after the 1966 midterm elections depleted Democratic ranks and enlarged Republican ones. LBJ was still the great master of Congress—but without the votes, the record was anything but robust. All the cajoling and persuading and horse-trading in the world did not matter.

Now briefly consider other presidents. Ronald Reagan was a master negotiator, and he has the distinction of having two major pieces of legislation, tax reform and immigration reform, enacted in his second term, without the overwhelming numbers that Johnson enjoyed in 1965-66. What Reagan did have, just like Johnson had on civil rights, was active and eager partners from the other party. The drive for tax reform did not start with Reagan, but with Democrats Bill Bradley and Dick Gephardt, whose reform bill became the template for the law that ultimately passed. They, and Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, were delighted to make their mark in history (and for Bradley and Gephardt, to advance their presidential ambitions) by working with the lame-duck Republican president. The same desire to craft transformative policy was there for both Alan Simpson and Ron Mazzoli, a Senate Republican and a House Democrat, who put together immigration legislation with limited involvement by the White House.

As for Bill Clinton, he was as politically adept as any president in modern times, and as charismatic and compelling as anyone. But the reality is that these great talents did not convince a single Republican to support his economic plan in 1993, nor enough Democrats to pass the plan for a crucial seven-plus months; did not stop the Republicans under Speaker Newt Gingrich from shutting down the government twice; and did not stop the House toward the end of his presidency from impeaching him on shaky grounds, with no chance of conviction in the Senate. The brief windows of close cooperation in 1996, after Gingrich’s humiliation following the second shutdown, were opened for pragmatic, tactical reasons by Republicans eager to win a second consecutive term in the majority, and ended shortly after they had accomplished that goal.

When Obama had the numbers, not as robust as LBJ’s but robust enough, he had a terrific record of legislative accomplishments. The 111th Congress ranks just below the 89th in terms of significant and far-reaching enactments, from the components of the economic stimulus plan to the health care bill to Dodd/Frank and credit-card reform. But all were done with either no or minimal Republican support. LBJ and Reagan had willing partners from the opposite party; Obama has had none. Nothing that he could have done would have changed the clear, deliberate policy of Republicans uniting to oppose and obstruct his agenda, that altered long-standing Senate norms to use the filibuster in ways it had never been employed before, including in the LBJ, Reagan, and Clinton eras, that drew sharp lines of total opposition on policies like health reform and raising taxes as part of a broad budget deal.

Could Obama have done more to bond with lawmakers? Sure, especially with members of his own party, which would help more now, when he is in the throes of second-term blues, than it would have when he achieved remarkable party unity in his first two years. But the brutal reality, in today’s politics, is that LBJ, if he were here now, could not be the LBJ of the Great Society years in this environment. Nobody can, and to demand otherwise is both futile and foolish.”


(HT: SP)

Economic models as fables

PNM-logoDifferent knowledge disciplines mean different things by the verb “to understand”.   For economists and physicists, a domain or a problem is not understood unless and until it is modeled, and often only by a particular type of model.    For most economists, for instance, agent-based models do not provide understanding, because they only show sufficient and not necessary conclusions.    For mechanical engineers, understanding usually only comes from a physical prototype.  For computer programmers, understanding happens through and with the writing of a software programme for the problem.  For legal scholars, it arises with and from the writing of a narrative text reflecting on the problem and its issues.

Here is economist and game theorist Ariel Rubinstein on models in economics:

Continue reading ‘Economic models as fables’

Bateson on rationality

Mere purposive rationality unaided by such phenomena as art, religion, dream and the like, is necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life; and  . . . its virulence springs specifically from the circumstance that life depends upon interlocking circuits of contingency, while consciousness can see only such short arcs of such circuits as human purpose may direct.”

Gregory Bateson [1972]: “Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art.”  Page 146 in: Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York, NY: Ballentine Books.

George Santayana said something similar in his Sonnet III:

It is not wisdom to be only wise,
And on the inward vision close the eyes,
But it is wisdom to believe the heart.

The Way

A recurring theme here has been the complexity of most important real-world decision-making, contrary to the models used in much of economics and computer science.   Some relevant posts are here, here, and here.    On this topic, I recently came across a wonderful cartoon by Michael Leunig, entitled “The Way” (click on the image to enlarge it):


I am very grateful to Michael Leunig for permission to reproduce this cartoon here.

Julia Gillard as manager

A description of former Australian PM Julia Gillard’s parliamentary and office management style, by former staffer Nicholas Reece:

Gillard is one of the best close-quarters politicians the Federal Parliament has ever seen.

As prime minister, she ran a disciplined, professional office that operated in much the same way as a well-run law firm – a product of her early career at Slater & Gordon.

Cabinet process was strictly upheld and the massive flow of administrative and policy paperwork that moves between government departments, the prime minister’s office and the prime minister’s desk was dealt with efficiently.

There was courtesy shown to staff, MPs, public servants and stakeholders – every person entitled to a view was given a chance to express it before a decision was made.

Gillard would diligently work her way through the detail of an issue and then patiently execute an agreed plan to tackle it.

She was generous with her time and did not rush people in the way busy leaders often do. She was never rude and never raised her voice, unless for humorous purposes.

She had a quick mind and could master a brief at lightning speed. She was a masterful parliamentary tactician and a brilliant analyst of the day’s events and the politics of the Labor caucus. She was a genuinely affectionate person and had a quick wit that could be deployed to lift the spirits of those around her.

At her instigation, birthdays were the subject of office celebration. This would involve Gillard turning up for cake and delivering a very personal speech to even the most junior staff.

Significantly for a national leader, Gillard had no major personality defects. She is probably the most normal, down-to-earth person to have served as prime minister of Australia in the modern era.

In a crisis, she was supremely calm. While others wilted, Gillard had a resilience that allowed her to keep stepping up to the plate.

She was good at remembering people’s names, knowing their story, understanding their motivations and being able to see a situation from another’s perspective.

These were attributes that were very well suited to the fraught circumstances of the 43rd Parliament.

In the negotiations with the crossbench MPs to form government, Gillard easily outmanoeuvred Tony Abbott. She better understood the independents’ motivations – she focused on the detail of how the relationship between government and the crossbenches would work and committed to serving the full term.

The achievements include: the national broadband network, putting a price on carbon, education reform, children’s dental care and the national disability insurance scheme.

In federal-state relations, there was the negotiation of health reform with the conservative premiers and in foreign affairs there was a strengthening of relations with our major partners, particularly China and the US.

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that Gillard was well-liked, even loved, among her staff, the public service and most of her caucus.”


The science of delegation

Most people, if they think about the topic at all, probably imagine computer science involves the programming of computers.  But what are computers?  In most cases, these are just machines of one form or another.  And what is programming?  Well, it is the issuing of instructions (“commands” in the programming jargon) for the machine to do something or other, or to achieve some state or other.   Thus, I view Computer Science as nothing more or less than the science of delegation.

When delegating a task to another person, we are likely to be more effective (as the delegator or commander) the more we know about the skills and capabilities and curent commitments and attitudes of that person (the delegatee or commandee).   So too with delegating to machines.   Accordingly, a large part of theoretical computer science is concerned with exploring the properties of machines, or rather, the deductive properties of mathematical models of machines.  Other parts of the discipline concern the properties of languages for commanding machines, including their meaning (their semantics) – this is programming language theory.  Because the vast majority of lines of program code nowadays are written by teams of programmers, not individuals, then much of computer science – part of the branch known as software engineering – is concerned with how to best organize and manage and evaluate the work of teams of people.   Because most machines are controlled by humans and act in concert for or with or to humans, then another, related branch of this science of delegation deals with the study of human-machine interactions.   In both these branches, computer science reveals itself to have a side which connects directly with the human and social sciences, something not true of the other sciences often grouped with Computer Science: pure mathematics, physics, or chemistry. 

And from its modern beginnings 70 years ago, computer science has been concerned with trying to automate whatever can be automated – in other words, with delegating the task of delegating.  This is the branch known as Artificial Intelligence.   We have intelligent machines which can command other machines, and manage and control them in the same way that humans could.   But not all bilateral relationships between machines are those of commander-and-subordinate.  More often, in distributed networks machines are peers of one another, intelligent and autonomous (to varying degrees).  Thus, commanding is useless – persuasion is what is needed for one intelligent machine to ensure that another machine does what the first desires.  And so, as one would expect in a science of delegation, computational argumentation arises as an important area of study.


Strategic Progamming

Over the last 40-odd years, a branch of Artificial Intelligence called AI Planning has developed.  One way to view Planning is as automated computer programming: 

  • Write a program that takes as input an initial state, a final state (“a goal”), and a collection of possible atomic actions, and  produces as output another computer programme comprising a combination of the actions (“a plan”) guaranteed to take us from the initial state to the final state. 

A prototypical example is robot motion:  Given an initial position (e.g., here), a means of locomotion (e.g., the robot can walk), and a desired end-position (e.g., over there), AI Planning seeks to empower the robot to develop a plan to walk from here to over there.   If some or all the actions are non-deterministic, or if there are other possibly intervening effects in the world, then the “guaranteed” modality may be replaced by a “likely” modality. 

Another way to view Planning is in contrast to Scheduling:

  • Scheduling is the orderly arrangement of a collection of tasks guranteed to achieve some goal from some initial state, when we know in advance the initial state, the goal state, and the tasks.
  • Planning is the identification and orderly arrangement of tasks guranteed to achieve some goal from some initial state, when we know in advance the initial state, the goal state, but we don’t yet know the tasks;  we only know in advance the atomic actions from which tasks may be constructed.

Relating these ideas to my business experience, I realized that a large swathe of complex planning activities in large companies involves something at a higher level of abstraction.  Henry Mintzberg called these activities “Strategic Programming”

  • Strategic Programming is the identification and priorization of a finite collection of programs or plans, given an initial state, a set of desirable end-states or objectives (possibly conflicting).  A program comprises an ordered collection of tasks, and these tasks and their ordering we may or may not know in advance.

Examples abound in complex business domains.   You wake up one morning to find yourself the owner of a national mobile telecommunications licence, and with funds to launch a network.  You have to buy the necessary equipment and deploy and connect it, in order to provide your new mobile network.   Your first decision is where to provide coverage:  you could aim to provide nationwide coverage, and not open your service to the public until the network has been installed and connected nationwide.  This is the strategy Orange adopted when launching PCS services in mainland Britain in 1994.   One downside of waiting till you’ve covered the nation before selling any service to customers is that revenues are delayed. 

Another downside is that a competitor may launch service before you, and that happened to Orange:  Mercury One2One (as it then was) offered service to the public in 1993, when they had only covered the area around London.   The upside of that strategy for One2One was early revenues.  The downside was that customers could not use their phones outside the island of coverage, essentially inside the M25 ring-road.   For some customer segments, wide-area or nationwide coverage may not be very important, so an early launch may be appropriate if those customer segments are being targeted.  But an early launch won’t help customers who need wider-area coverage, and – unless marketing communications are handled carefully – the early launch may position the network operator in the minds of such customers as permanently providing inadequate service.   The expectations of both current target customers and customers who are not currently targets need to be explicitly managed to avoid such mis-perceptions.

In this example, the different coverage rollout strategies ended up at the same place eventually, with both networks providing nationwide coverage.  But the two operators took different paths to that same end-state.   How to identify, compare, prioritize, and select-between these different paths is the very stuff of marketing and business strategy, ie, of strategic programming.  It is why business decision-making is often very complex and often intellectually very demanding.   Let no one say (as academics are wont to do) that decision-making in business is a doddle.   Everything is always more complicated than it looks from outside, and identifying and choosing-between alternative programs is among the most complex of decision-making activities.

Decision-making style

This week’s leadership-challenge-that-wasn’t in the Federal Parliamentary Caucus of the Australian Labor Party saw the likely end of Kevin Rudd’s political career.   At the last moment he bottled it, having calculated that he did not have the numbers to win a vote of his caucus colleagues and so deciding not to stand.  Ms Gillard was re-elected leader of the FPLP unopposed.       Why Rudd failed to win caucus support is explained clearly in subsequent commentary by one of his former speech-writers, James Button:

The trick to government, Paul Keating once said, is to pick three big things and do them well. But Rudd opened a hundred policy fronts, and focused on very few of them. He centralised decision-making in his office yet could not make difficult decisions. He called climate change the greatest moral challenge of our time, then walked away from introducing an emissions trading scheme. He set a template for governing that Labor must move beyond.

On Thursday, for the third time in three years, a large majority of Rudd’s caucus colleagues made it clear that they did not want him as leader. Yet for years Rudd seemed as if he would never be content until he returned as leader. On Friday he said that he would never again seek the leadership of the party. He must keep his word, or else the impasse will destabilise and derail the party until he leaves Parliament.

Since losing the prime ministership, Rudd never understood that for his prospects to change within the government he had to openly acknowledge, at least in part, that there were sensible reasons why Gillard and her supporters toppled him in 2010. Then, as hard as it would have been, he had to get behind Gillard, just as Bill Hayden put aside his great bitterness and got behind Bob Hawke and joined his ministry after losing the Labor leadership to him in 1983.

Yes, Rudd’s execution was murky and brutal and should have been done differently, perhaps with a delegation of senior ministers going to Rudd first to say change or go. Yes, the consequences have been catastrophic for Gillard and for the ALP. ”Blood will have blood,” as Dennis Glover, a former Gillard speechwriter who also wrote speeches for Rudd, said in a newspaper on Thursday.

But why did it happen? Why did so many Labor MPs resolve to vote against Rudd that he didn’t dare stand? Why was he thrashed in his 2012 challenge? Why have his numbers not significantly moved, despite all the government’s woes?

Because – it must be said again – Rudd was a poor prime minister. To his credit, he led the government’s brave and decisive response to the global financial crisis. His apology speech changed Australia and will be remembered for years to come. But beyond that he has few achievements, and the way he governed brought him down.

At the time of his 2012 challenge, seven ministers went public with fierce criticisms of Rudd’s governing style. When most of them made it clear they would not serve again in a Rudd cabinet, many commentators wrote this up as slander and character assassination of Rudd, or as one of those vicious but mysterious internal brawls that afflict the Labor Party from time to time. They missed the essential points: that the criticisms came from a diverse and representative set of ministers, and they had substance.

If the word of these seven ministers is not enough, consider the reporting of Rudd’s treatment of colleagues by Fairfax journalist David Marr in his 2010 Quarterly Essay, Power Trip. Or the words of Glover, who wrote last year that as a ”member of the Gang of Four Hundred or So (advisers and speechwriters) I can assure you that the chaos and frustration described by Gillard supporters during February’s failed leadership challenge rang very, very true with about 375 of us.”

Consider the reporting of Rudd’s downfall by ABC journalist Barrie Cassidy in his book, Party Thieves. Never had numbers tumbled so quickly, Cassidy wrote. ”That’s because Rudd himself drove them. His own behaviour had caused deep-seated resentment to take root.” Leaders had survived slumps before and would again. But ”Rudd was treated differently because he was different: autocratic, exclusive, disrespectful and at times flat-out abusive”. Former Labor minister Barry Cohen told Cassidy: ”If Rudd was a better bloke he would still be leader. But he pissed everybody off.”

These accounts tallied with my own observations when I worked as a speechwriter for Rudd in 2009. While my own experience of Rudd was both poor and brief, I worked with many people – 40 or more – who worked closely with him. Their accounts were always the same. While Rudd was charming to the outside world, behind closed doors he treated people with rudeness and contempt. At first I kept waiting for my colleagues to give me another side of Rudd: that he could be difficult but was at heart a good bloke. Yet apart from some conversations in which people praised his handling of the global financial crisis, no one ever did.

Since he lost power, is there any sign that Rudd has reflected on his time in office, accepted that he made mistakes, that he held deep and unaccountable grudges and treated people terribly?

Did he reflect on the rages he would fly into when people gave him advice he didn’t want, how he would put those people into what his staff called ”the freezer”, sometimes not speaking to them for months or more? Did he reflect on the way he governed in a near permanent state of crisis, how his reluctance to make decisions until the very last moment coupled with a refusal to take unwelcome advice led his government into chaos by the middle of 2010, when his obsessive focus on his health reforms left the government utterly unprepared to deal with the challenges of the emissions trading scheme, the budget, the Henry tax review and the mining tax? To date there is no sign that he has learnt from the failures of his time as prime minister.

Through his wife, Rudd is currently the richest member of the Australian Commonwealth Parliament, and perhaps the  richest person ever to be an MP.    He is also fluent in Mandarin Chinese and famously intelligent, although perhaps not as bright as his predecessors as Labor leader, Gough Whitlam or Doc Evatt, or former ministers, Isaac Isaacs, Ted Theodore or Barry Jones.  It is possible, of course, to have a first-rate mind and a second-rate temperament.  An autocratic management style – unpopular within the Labor Party at any time, as Evatt and Whitlam both learnt – is even less appropriate when the Party lacks a majority in the House, and has to rely on a permanent, floating two-up game of ad hoc negotiations with Green and Independent MPs to pass legislation.