March 07, 2008

Is "National Security" a market for silver bullets?

John Robb poses a puzzler:

The US national security budget is nearly $700 billion a year (much more if the total costs of Iraq/Afghanistan are thrown in), more than the rest of the world combined. Unfortunately, within that entire budget there isn't a single research organization or think tank that is seriously studying, analyzing or synthesizing the future of warfare and terrorism. Fatally, most of the big thinkers working on the future of warfare do their critical work in their spare time, usually while working other jobs to put food on the table for their families. ... Here's why. The need for relevancy became apparent on 9/11, when a small group of attackers hit the US without regard, or even a passing thought, to the trillions the US had previously invested in national security. The public's response, this first time, was to pour more trillions to correct that failure. When another unanticipated situation occurs again (and it will, likely in a increasingly rapid succession as small group warfare climbs an exponential ramp of productivity improvements), the public will not be as generous

This has an echo like silver bullets.

We have a market where lots of money is being thrown into various warfighting events and capabilities. Each seller knows their tools, but unless it is a commodity product like rifles, the seller does not know that well how their weapons fit in to the big picture. We might happily get sellers of robots knowing what their robot does, but the are very reliant on the buyer to know whether to deploy them as minesweepers or mesh-network extenders.

Then, we've got the specter of the aggressive attacker. One half-million dollar attack "defeated" the defences, and things might not be any better now

In short, the next black swan is likely to do the opposite of what the national security bureaucracy thinks. Rather than be the driver of massive rounds of new funding, it could turn it into a husk of its former self. Given that simply remaining relevant will become the key to future public funding of our national security system...

Add in the recent history of Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan, and it seems that either the buyer of product doesn't know what he's doing, or whoever does know isn't telling the rest of them. Either way, same thing; the buyer of product may know how to do classical open country tank warfare, but not closed guerilla warfare.

Is national security a market for silver bullets? We seem to have a rough match of the base conditions. In the paper I ask that question because it is a natural extension of IT security (and I, like John Robb, would like a few million for my thinktank) but it is not really clear that we have enough data to answer the question.

What do you think? Do the buyer and seller in the market for national security have the information they need for efficient trading of product?

And, if they don't, if we find national security in the dismal square of Spencian inefficiency, what would you do about it? I'm not sure I agree with everything that John Robb rights, but this one is worth repeating:

Competition from below. New, grass roots efforts at the state and local levels will compete favorably against national programs. As in: if the federal bureaucracy can't protect us, we will do the job ourselves locally (New York City has already paved that pathway with its own counter-terrorism center). Expect a fight between local and federal, a fight where the local wins.

Because that is evidence from ground zero: New York. The arisal of local security would be seen by the feds as a failure, but according to this model, the failure would be part of the market, not the their own failings.

Posted by iang at March 7, 2008 03:20 PM | TrackBack

I thought the US was awash with think-tanks providing advice on security and other matters to the government.

They are not necessarily government funded or impartial (though most claim impartiality), so the direction and results of their research tends to be guided by the interests of those with the cheque books, which is inline with the American way (those with the money determine national priorities). The whole neocon movement is supposed to have sprung from a Jewish funded think-tank.

So I am not sure that I agree with the assertion that not a single think-tank is seriously researching warfare or terrorrism.

Posted by: Digbyt at March 8, 2008 08:08 AM

Yes, I wondered about that. I think it is possible for all those statements to be true at the same time: advice is given, and paid for, and nobody is doing serious thinking. To the extent that we can show that, I'd say that the echoes are getting louder.

Posted by: Iang at March 8, 2008 08:15 AM

Are you sure about that? My understanding is that these think-tanks are not paid for their advice. They are paid for by benefactors who would be wasting their money if they did not insist on some serious thinking being done in return.

Of course the neutrality of these benefactors is open to question, andthe direction of the research and selection of researcher may well result in advice that if adopted will provide some benefit to the benefactors interests.

Posted by: Digbyt at March 9, 2008 03:15 AM

From the Lighthouse: Pentagon Touts New Budget Baseline

What should be the size of the U.S. defense budget? Whatever your orientation or understanding of military affairs, it’s unlikely that you would answer the question by pulling a number at random. Yet Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staffs Chairman Mike Mullen, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell—and even the New York Times—seem to agree on a method for determining this figure that is arguably equivalent to that: determining some level of military spending based on its relationship to U.S. gross domestic product. Today, U.S. military spending is about 4 percent of GDP—far lower than the ration obtained during the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or World War II—but this number hardly seems relevant, according to Independent Institute Senior Fellow Robert Higgs.

“Does it not make much more sense to assess the actual threats the country faces, to determine the optimal means of meeting or deterring these threats with a sufficient degree of confidence, and then to add up the costs of obtaining the stipulated means?” asks Higgs in a new op-ed. “Whether this total amount happens to be 1 percent or 20 percent of GDP is entirely beside the point, which is to protect the American people from potential, likely, external attackers. Once an adequate defense program has been designed and its components priced, the military leadership can present the total bill to Congress and defend it by showing, item by item, why each of its elements is necessary to achieve the desired degree of national security.”

Government spending as a share of total output is a wholly inadequate way to measure government intervention in the economy, as Higgs has explained in Neither Liberty nor Safety. Still less is it an adequate way to determine defense needs. But its political uses are plainly obvious. Touting a baseline in this manner prevents military spending from significantly shrinking. “This sequence of events is a recipe for upward-ratcheting growth of the defense share of GDP, regardless of its reasonableness in relation to dealing with actual foreign threats,” writes Higgs.

“Military Spending / GDP = Nonsense for Budget Policy Making,” by Robert Higgs (3/7/08)

“Military-Economic Fascism: How Business Corrupts Government, and Vice Versa,” by Robert Higgs (The Independent Review, Fall 2007)

Neither Liberty nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government, by Robert Higgs

Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, by Robert Higgs

Posted by: Military Spending / GDP = Nonsense for Budget Policy Making at March 11, 2008 07:20 AM
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