One of my occasional concerns about foreign policy is how ill-conceived, ill-informed, or simply illegal policies get fixed. As I've noted before, one of the problems with relying on whistleblowers is that the kind of person who believes themselves to be a truthteller also tends to have otherbaggage. To the blunt, the personality tropes that permit whistleblowers to speak truth to power also frequently make it easy to paint them as odd or unhinged.
For exhibit A of this concern, see Matt Bai's New York Times Magazine profile of Scott Ritter, the weapons inspector who prominently and loudly insisted that there were no weapons ogf mass destruction in Iraq. Ritter was right, but he was also plenty odd in the way he went about arguing his point. In recent years Ritter has gotten himself into legal trouble by... well, let's say by doing things on the internet with individuals posing as ostensibly underage girls. Bai focuses on the ways in which Ritter's belligerent insistence of his own rightness explains both his Iraq behavior and his refusal to plea bargain his current legal difficulties:
If there is a connection between Ritter the activist and Ritter the accused... it probably lies in the uncompromising, even heedless way in which he insists on his version of reality, and how he sees himself always as the victim of a system that is self-evidently corrupt. “I’m someone who believes the truth needs to be heard,” Ritter told me. “And if I’m empowered with the truth, I’m not going to shut up.”
Such stridency has repercussions. Taken in isolation, this latest case against Ritter... is hardly the kind of thing that lands you on “America’s Most Wanted.” It’s not as though Ritter, who is the father of twin 19-year-old daughters, was trolling an adolescent site looking to prey on minors. Nor did he ever hint at meeting with the fictional Emily face to face. There’s little question the man needs help, but such cases are routinely disposed of through plea bargains, and prosecutors in Ritter’s case were willing, initially, to let him escape with a single guilty plea, which may well have meant probation rather than jail. Especially given Ritter’s previous arrests in New York, this seems to have been a more-than-equitable resolution, and most accused sex offenders in the age of Megan’s Law would probably have jumped at it.
But Ritter has forcefully insisted all along that he did nothing wrong, beyond betraying Marina’s trust. “Why would I plead guilty to something I didn’t do?” he asked me, when I raised the issue of a plea arrangement. I suggested he might have done it to avoid going to jail.
“No,” he replied. “Wrong answer. Then I’m not a man. Then I’m not a human being.”
People like Ritter might be truth-tellers, but because they have additional baggage, their ability to perform their truth-telling function becomes compromised.
This fact was getting me down, but then I read Jack Shafer's excellent review of Max Holland's Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat. Shafer's review is designed to puncture the romantic myth of Felt as a lone crusader who dared to bring down Nixon because It Was The Right Thing To Do:
Recasting Deep Throat as an avenger and not a patriot, Leak illuminates our understanding of the press by explaining why sources leak. Anonymous sources — especially Washington’s anonymous sources — almost invariably have an ax to grind, as Betty Cuniberti established in her classic August 1987 Los Angeles Times story. One unnamed Reagan administration official tells her that most Reagan White House leaks are “personal,” aimed at other White House officials. “There’s a great deal of infighting,” he tells her.
Reagan White House staffers who couldn’t get the president’s attention would slip “Message-to-Reagan” leaks to the press to generate news stories or press conference questions to which he would have to respond, Cuniberti writes. The art of the leak requires information to be packaged just right, she notes. A national security adviser who wanted to plant a story in the press — a so-called authorized leak — might avoid giving the information directly to a reporter because the reporter would rightly view it as a self-serving leak designed to advance the administration’s views. Even rookie reporters get suspicious of sources’ motives. Better to have a subordinate convey the leak to disguise the motive and make the information seem more authentically newsworthy.
Leak‘s persuasive position is that Felt gamed Woodward, making him think that he was on the side of the angels when what he was trying to do was screw his enemies and become the next J. Edgar Hoover. That’s not a criticism of Woodward or his Watergate work, which by the standards of any day was very good....
Nor was Felt’s gaming of Woodward unusual. Every source leaks for a reason, and it’s usually not about preserving the constitution and the American way. As Stephen Hess writes, sources have many reasons to leak. They leak to boost their own egos. They leak to make a goodwill deposit with a reporter that they hope to withdraw in the future. They leak to advance their policy initiative. They leak to launch trial balloons and sometimes even to blow the whistle on wrongdoing. But until contesting evidence arrives, it’s usually a safe bet that a leak is what Hess calls an “Animus Leak,” designed to inflict damage on another party.
Shafer is trying to burst the noble bubble surrounding Felt, but to this political scientist, his argument was very soothing. A world in which we must rely on whistleblowers that possess martyr complexes for important information about national security is a dangerous world. It is too easy to tarnish whistleblowers because of their other personality tropes.
Bureaucrats or career-minded political appointees leaking to advance their own aims, however, covers a lot more rational actors. Even if their motives are far from pure, the combination of individual incentives encourages a lot more leaking than would otherwise occur. Like Adam Smith's invisible hand, even if the intent is not for policymakers to provide more information to the press, the combined effect is a larger and more accurate spotlight on the foreign policy machine.
My point: I'll take a world of greedy and power-seeking bureaucrats over a world of noble, self-righteous whistleblowers to promote transparency in foreign policy and national security.
What do you think?
A short follow-up to my last post on values vs. incentives and why pundits favor talking about the former rather than the latter.
I see I wasn't the only one to get exercised by Tom Friedman's decline-of-values argument. It's worth quoting Jonathan Bernstein's observation about the proper way to think about sacrifice in political economy:
Friedman's insistence that politicians ask for citizens to sacrifice... gives me an excuse to link back to and quote my theory that we need a chess model of sacrifice. As I said then, everyone understands that a sacrifice in chess is self-interested. There is no moral or character component to sacrificing a piece; it's a good idea if it helps the player win, and a bad idea otherwise. No one analyzes a chess game by saying that the player lost, but at least she was willing to sacrifice her rook, or that he didn't deserve to win because he was unwilling to sacrifice anything. It seems to me that we'd be better off if pundits talked about sacrifice in that way, rather than in the morally loaded fashion (which I think is similar to the misguided way that sacrifice is discussed in baseball) that Friedman favors. Oddly enough, I think that the chess model of sacrifice, even though it appears to be cold, calculating, and cynical, would yield a much more healthy view of the collateral costs in human suffering often involved in Friedmanesque calls for sacrifice.
I think Bernstein is right, but I will admit that this kind of frame has less political appeal than Friedman's incorrect frame -- which might be why we don't see it all that often.
One of the paradoxes I tried to highlight in my recent review of finance books was that it was paradoxical to claim simultaneously that capital markets were becoming more efficient even as the financial sector hoovered up an ever greater share of profits and skilled human capital. So I'm pretty sympathetic to the argument that market incentives in the United States are too heavily skewed towards a career of high finance.
Skewed incentives, however, are not the same thing as skewed values. Unfortunately, the New York Times stable of columnists is blurring the distinction. For Exhibit A, let's look at this segment of Tom Friedman's column from the weekend:
We had a values breakdown — a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism. Wall Street may have been dealing the dope, but our lawmakers encouraged it. And far too many of us were happy to buy the dot-com and subprime crack for quick prosperity highs.
Ask yourself: What made our Greatest Generation great? First, the problems they faced were huge, merciless and inescapable: the Depression, Nazism and Soviet Communism. Second, the Greatest Generation’s leaders were never afraid to ask Americans to sacrifice. Third, that generation was ready to sacrifice, and pull together, for the good of the country. And fourth, because they were ready to do hard things, they earned global leadership the only way you can, by saying: “Follow me.”
Contrast that with the Baby Boomer Generation. Our big problems are unfolding incrementally — the decline in U.S. education, competitiveness and infrastructure, as well as oil addiction and climate change. Our generation’s leaders never dare utter the word “sacrifice.” All solutions must be painless. Which drug would you like? A stimulus from Democrats or a tax cut from Republicans? A national energy policy? Too hard. For a decade we sent our best minds not to make computer chips in Silicon Valley but to make poker chips on Wall Street, while telling ourselves we could have the American dream — a home — without saving and investing, for nothing down and nothing to pay for two years. Our leadership message to the world (except for our brave soldiers): “After you.”
For Exhibit B, here's David Brooks from Friday:
After decades of affluence, the U.S. has drifted away from the hardheaded practical mentality that built the nation’s wealth in the first place.
The shift is evident at all levels of society. First, the elites. America’s brightest minds have been abandoning industry and technical enterprise in favor of more prestigious but less productive fields like law, finance, consulting and nonprofit activism.
It would be embarrassing or at least countercultural for an Ivy League grad to go to Akron and work for a small manufacturing company. By contrast, in 2007, 58 percent of male Harvard graduates and 43 percent of female graduates went into finance and consulting....
[T]he value shifts are real. Up and down society, people are moving away from commercial, productive activities and toward pleasant, enlightened but less productive ones.
OK, I'm calling a Vizzini foul on the word "values" here.
A broad spectrum of American saved less over the past decade because they were responding rationally to massive asset appreciation. High-skilled Americans went into finance because it paid remarkably well. Americans didn't do these things because they suddenly got lazy. Indeed, the opposite was true, if U.S. labor productivity figures are any guide. And while much calumny has been heaped upon Wall Street in the past few years, is anyone actually accusing bankers of either not working hard enough or not putting in enough hours?
Americans haven't suddenly gotten contemptuous of either saving or manufacturing. They were responding to the price signals that the market communicated to them.
This is great news, by the way. Changing values is really, really hard. Shifting material incentives is not exactly easy, but it's much more doable than fomenting a values shift.
I suspect that
ranting writing only about incentives and not about values makes better copy. That said, I'd prefer it if the most influential op-ed columnists in the land correctly diagnosed what ails the American political economy rather than saying "distemper" or "an imbalance of humors."
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.