New structuring of this page... Originally, it was written before Dubya had really done much of anything, so it was just predictions of probabilities. Then I started trying to update things to reflect newer developments, which was actually a bad idea. Actually, now that he's been in the White House for a while, the harms are piling up like one of his higher pies, so I'm leaving the predictions alone, and just adding new comments about the foulups at the bottom of this page. The link at the right will jump directly to the fresh meat...

February 2002

Original Harm Predictions:

This page is for listing what I think are some of the main harms likely or possible as a result of the young Bush's term of occupancy of the White House. Each area of likely damage appears in the order of seriousness of the damage, with the most serious ones listed first. I've also included an estimate as to what I think the likelihood of each harm is. Actually, the damage ranking also reflects the probability--a very serious harm with a lower probability may appear below a less serious harm that has a very high probability of happening. This is basically my considered response to the people who say they think Dubya may do a very good job, except they seem unable to give a single concrete reason why. Apart from the detail that it would be the first time in his life, these are concrete reasons why not.

This color is for the update of 29 September 2001, reflecting the short-term responses to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in NYC and Washington, DC. Perhaps some of the items should be shuffled up and down, too, but waiting for a mid-range perspective first.

Category Probability Time Scale to do Damage Time Scale for Recovery
Education 50% 1-4 years Perhaps never
Federal Courts 80% A few months (for confirmations) 40 years
Economy 75%, now to 95% 1-4 years 1-3 years
Environment 80% 1-4 years 10-100 years
The American Military 60% 2-4 years 3-7 years
War 45%, now to 90% On opportunity 5-20 years
The Internet 75% 1-4 years Immediate?
Public Trust in Government 95% Immediate Perhaps never, but perhaps bad is good here?
Probability: 50%. Education is the future. Public education is the flavor that is guaranteed for everyone, even the people who aren't as rich as the Bushes. School vouchers that can also be used for private schools will weaken the public schools, and they surely don't need any additional weakening. I've written more on this crucial education topic elsewhere, and I want to keep these entries fairly short. But in summary, an effective school voucher system will pour public money into the pockets of private interests, and it will not improve the future of the public OR the private interests. I'm trying to be optimistic with a low probability estimate, but I think this is the first time any president has apparently supported this monster, while possibly having the factional party votes to push it through. As of this writing, the first significant education legislation is close to passage, and though this particular relatively bipartisan legislation does not seem too dangerous, the longer term prospects remain uncertain.
Federal Courts
Probability: 80%. The Bushies are working hard to appoint as many federal judges as possible, but they're doing it in the worst possible way, by focusing on conservative ideological considerations above all else. They've even streamlined the nominee selection procedure to exclude the American Bar Association because they're just too focused on such trifles as judicial competency. A few months ago, I would not have regarded this as a significant problem--excessively weird decisions are usually overturned on appeal, and even young appointees eventually get old and go away. But the election shows that it can matter, and it appears that Bush is determined to appoint more judges who will put political loyalty and ideological considerations above all else. The only reason the probability is less than 100% is because people sometimes change and it's possible to make mistakes in assessing how a judge will act in the future. The probability dropped a bit more when the Democrats took control of the Senate. This gives them scheduling control over the confirmation hearings, which was a major tool the GOP used for blocking Clinton's nominees.
Probability: 75%, now to 95%. Short summary is Bush is quite likely to cause a serious economic depression. The joke form is that depression, even economic depression, is just a state of mind, and Bush is fundamentally depressing. His bleak mumblings could become a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy, though of course he's too rich to care. The non-joke form is that his economic policies favor his rich friends over everyone else, and this will tend to imbalance and damage the economy. The tax cuts are just the biggest and most visible example, and Texas is already beginning to suffer from the short-sighted tax cuts before Bush left. I've also read a very persuasive argument that there is a deliberate conservative attempt to oppose government spending by making the government bankrupt--a kind of forced thrift campaign. The evidence is based on the history of the Reagan and elder Bush presidencies. This is a place where the grass roots supporters of Bush seem especially irrational. They insist that economic good was always caused by their side and harms were caused by the enemies, and there is apparently no evidence that can convince them otherwise.

Another aspect of economic harms is balance as in keeping the market fair and open, also related to the Internet item mentioned below. The 'well-connected' Bushies will favor certain industries and even certain companies over others, and the overall effect will be harmful to the economy. Quite a number of blatant examples already, mostly involving BIG oil companies. Indirectly, the California situation is another example, since a lot of their electricity problems were apparently caused by rate reforms instituted by a recent Republican governor--which now produces lots of finger pointing by the new Democratic governor. An aspect related more directly to the Internet is the Microsoft question, and their latest actions show that Microsoft is sure they have nothing to worry about now that their GOP friends control the Justice Department. What, me monopoly? In God we Anti-Trust.

It had already become clear that the economy was having problems, but now the situation has to be regarded as much worse than problematic. I should just raise it to 100%, but maybe there'll be some kind of miracle. Probably require something like the arrival of friendly aliens, however. Enron deserves special mention, too, but since it isn't a probable harm, but an actual harm, the Enron comments are in a kind of appendix below.
Probability: 80%. No surprise here. Actually, the only surprise to me is that anyone apparently believed anything else. The GOP has always been a pro-big-business party, and the amazing thing is how they tried to throw that accusation at the Democrats in this last election. Anyway, the predictable is happening, with the Bushies making it clear that they want to call all the shots in favor of making money, and the future generations will just have to clean up the extra mess. There are two mitigating factors, however. One is public opinion, which is already showing signs of offense and producing at least some public mitigation of the new policies. The other is that the environment is big, and there are limits to how much damage the Bushies can do in a couple of years, even with the worst and greediest intents.
The American Military
Probability: 60%. This is far down the list because it doesn't really matter so much, at least in the current world situation where there are no major military threats to America. I suppose that is cause for concern because of lowering our guard too much, but I just can't believe any country is liable to invade the States, though there's plenty of likelihood of various little wars around the world--and some still in progress. This is actually another example of hypocrisy in action, because the GOP is supposed to be pro-military, even though Bush himself is about as undisciplined and unmilitary as anyone can be.

The minor reason I think he will be harmful is just by being such a bad personal example. He simply used the military as a way to avoid getting shot at in Vietnam. It's obvious that his political influence got him a highly desirable slot as a safe pilot in a convenient National Guard unit. (He only flew obsolete fighters that would never be sent to Vietnam.) He had the lowest admissible score on the test, but was accepted over thousands of other better qualified applicants. At public expense he played with the planes for a couple of years, and then just blew off the last part of his commitment--and was apparently honorably discharged, though his military records remain secret. Every other public figure I know of has been willing to release his military records to the public, but not George II. Just another 'young and irresponsible' learning experience not to be confused with 'moral turpitude.'

The big reason is that supporting the military costs money, but the rich Bushies want the money for their big tax cuts. Already have the evidence in the first budget submitted by Bush, wherein military spending remains at the level recommended by that 'immoral' Clinton feller.
Probability: 45%, now to 90%. Actually, depending on how you define things, I suppose you could say we're still at war with Iraq, going back to his father's time at the White House. This is a tough area to assess, though the potential damage in some worst case scenarios could be very high. It seems pretty clear that even many of Bush's supporters understand that war is rarely safe and always has big costs. But who is really making these decisions? And what does Bush really believe? How badly does he want to be a 'popular' wartime president? And can he slip his leash if the others are trying to hold him back? However, what can be said for sure is that there's a lot more military news and peculiar incidents and accidents these days, and Bush has only been in Washington for a couple of months. My assessment here is mixed, reflecting a large probability of small wars that probably won't hurt anything too much--well, except for the people who get killed, and they won't complain afterwards--, and a small probability of a major war that could cause a whole lot of grief. But war is great for the polls...

This probability would go even higher except that it isn't exactly clear how the declared "war on terrorism" fits into the definition of war. Also, though it is clear that war is harmful, and that the United States has been attacked, it isn't clear how much additional harm is going to result now. Who are we going to attack? How will we attack them? Will it spread? Most of the actual attackers were Saudi Arabians, but that country is not a candidate to be attacked, at least not while they continue to sell us oil. Afghanistan isn't a very promising target--the entire country is probably worth less than the damage estimate for NYC. Pakistan may collapse and become another Islamic republic. The Bushies would probably like to use the excuse to take out Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but that could get messy. Iran has apparently become an enemy, too, since Dubya said all countries must join the U.S. and Iran said they still disagree with Dubya, though they officially censure terrorism. The only thing for sure is that the bombs we make and then blow up will not produce any lasting value for anyone. Though the dictionary is clear enough, I frankly think it will be impossible to create any definition of terrorism that will be widely accepted in the practical terms required for international agreement.
The Internet
Probability: 75%. My estimate on this one mostly reflects a need for positive action rather than a simple avoidance of mistakes. The Internet is a complicated system with a number of significant problems that don't make sense in conventional dollars and cents terms, but those are the only terms the Bushies sort of understand. I keep thinking of Akio Morita's discussion of how he made the decisions that built Sony. Yes, many of them were smart business decisions, but he always felt his technical background was helpful in making better decisions, and even in learning from his mistakes. (He didn't mention his un-Dubya-like high intelligence, but that was obvious and would have been boastful. My recollection is that the topic was related to his mistaken decision for Sony to basically drop digital electronics in favor of analog for several years.)

On the plus side, I think the Internet has incredible potential to do good, and many people are fundamentally disposed to learn and want the information that only the Internet can provide. However, on the negative side, the Internet doesn't make much or any traditional economic sense, and the Bushies are liable to poison the well trying to make sure they can sell the water for the best price. Also, they want to 'protect' a lot of clueless old companies that they just happen to own. Constructively guiding the Internet calls for technical savvy Bush can't even comprehend, and the kind of creativity that Harvard MBAs are famously lacking. Reminds me of working for an Internet-related company with a Harvard MBA whose poor management helped the company tank--a couple of million dollars right down the drain. With better management, both financial and technical, it could have become one of the leading ISPs of Japan rather than a leader in going bust. But Bush's actions and inactions can affect the entire Internet...

However, a big new factor on the negative side--First Amendment Zones. The GOP has been using these to control the appearance of dissent for a while now, though I only heard about the practice recently [late June of 2001]. I am mostly appalled that the conventional media have apparently been ignoring it. There was a time when they actively supported the First Amendment. Remember the Internet is fundamentally designed as one giant First Amendment Zone. Censorship may be the worst kind of damage, but the Internet will try to route around ALL damage. What they can't control, they may well choose to destroy, and now I think we must consider the possibility of deliberate actions to hurt the Internet. Even though it was obviously important to the Clinton prosperity, the rich Bushies don't need that kind of 'tainted' prosperity.
Public Trust in Government
Probability: 95%. I admit this one is a kind of trick question. I think distrust of government is actually a good thing, and was a central design principle guiding those great liberal intellectuals who designed America's system of government. From that perspective, one can argue that everything Bush does to discredit himself and to damage the reputation of the government is kind of good. Still, on the balance I have to say that it is bad, because you fundamentally can't get rid of power--it exists and has to be controlled. I think that intelligence and integrity and honesty are all important for exercising proper control, and Bush has none of the above. He may do great damage, or maybe his collective cloud of Bushies will avoid major damage, but even in that case, they reaffirm the new GOP tradition that 'stupid is good', and I just won't buy that. By the way, this is where I regard the GOP as inferior to the Democratic Party, though I'm not politically motivated and prefer to vote by the candidates, not by the parties. But at the national level, the GOP seems to have decided that fools are marketable and safe winners. Intelligent and honest Republicans like Dole are regarded as sure losers, and even the most unthinking knee-jerk born Republicans would agree Nixon was a mistake not to be repeated--intelligent and dishonest and downright dangerous.

Closing this entry on a weird note, I'll say that I do think the American system of government is obviously very sick and needs major healing--of a kind that may not be possible now. The process of selecting George II as resident of the White House is only one of the symptoms of the excessive power of the lawyers. Nevertheless, Dubya himself is just a minor disease, though definitely NOT part of the cure. Some people sincerely feel that we need another American Revolution to clean house, but... I just can't buy that. The outcome would be uncertain, the improvements would probably be marginal, and a real revolution would be certain to hurt a lot of people. However, if the system keeps changing in negative ways, eventually it will have to collapse--best efforts of the bogus conservatives of the GOP notwithstanding. Principled conservatism and fear of losing your big house are NOT the same thing.

Another extension is regarding the specific trust in the presidency, but that also calls for a separate treatment elsewhere...

That's all for now, but I might add more as writing time and evidence allow. Or maybe if you send me your suggestion via the JavaScript-encrypted email link below.

Mostly 9 December 2001 and 20 January 2002

A special note about Enron—and why Dubya may help the spread of that form of stock-based panic

This is mostly speculation outside of my field, which makes it more fun, but... I have been watching the stock market for a number of years, and even own a few thousand shares of this and that—but it works funny in yen with little shares in large numbers. Yes, I'm mostly mystified and long ago concluded that the stock prices have lost all touch with economic realities, but there must still be some rhyme or reason somewhere in there. So...

The basic background information is that Enron was a young, very large, and apparently hugely successful company from Texas. At one point Enron was apparently larger (in market capitalization) and possibly more powerful and influential than Microsoft. Their official goal was to pass Exxon, which given Exxon's record of environmental damage... Can't say they weren't ambitious. Anyway, they were also Dubya's biggest campaign contributors and Enron's managers had lots of close personal ties to various GOPpies. They were originally involved in natural gas, but very rapidly expanded into many energy-related fields and then into bits of everything. And then they suddenly burst like a bubble. It actually takes a little while for such a big balloon to explode, and the problems have been emerging for several months. I actually suspect that one of the things distracting the Bushies from domestic security before the 9/11 disaster was that they were probably trying hard (and extremely secretly) to save Enron. To no avail. Enron filed for bankruptcy protection last week. Current stock price is about 1/300th of the peak value and I think they'll be delisted as soon as possible.

Though very little solid information has been released so far, my hypothesis as to what happened is that Enron was basically a kind of shell game. There were lots of companies involved, and money was being shuffled hither and yon, and each time it was counted up, the value of everything was apparently larger. The basic enabling environment was the deregulation the GOPpies had been pushing for so many years, though actually a lot of the natural gas deregulation was finally started by President Carter. Enron actually appeared around 1985, and Gramm's wife was involved from the beginning, though I'm not sure when Dubya got so buddy-buddy with them. After Dubya shuffled into the White House, the Enron folks apparently thought they had clear sailing, so they gave it one more big push and suddenly the whole house of cards collapsed. However, one of the few solid facts is that Enron needed support from the government, and they invested heavily in any politician who seemed likely to provide some. Too bad Dubya let them down, eh? A current joke relates to Dubya's nickname for Enron's chief, Ken Lay: Kenny Boy.

Ken Lay:
Knock, knock.
Who's there?
Ken Lay:
Your old friend and No. 1 campaign donor, Kenny Boy!
Kenny who?

The main proximate victims seem to be the employees of Enron, especially the ones with their 401(k) pensions tied up in Enron stock, which is now worth a little more than toilet paper. (Yeah, Dubya wanted to allow every to gamble their social security on the stock market.) Of course, a lot of non-affiliated companies and creditors are getting burned, too. However, the bigger danger is that a lot of what destroyed Enron is not that different from the accounting practices of many other big companies, and therefore those companies, too, may be at risk.

What I've concluded from studying the financial reports over the years is that the goal of the most common shell game is to make the main central part of the company look as good as possible. However, there is a fundamental problem in doing this. To 'look good' in the required sense calls for size, high growth, and excellence, and it's fundamentally impossible to do them all at once; you can raise the average, but you can't abolish it. Therefore, many companies use accounting tricks similar to those that destroyed Enron, though most companies are obviously less aggressive about it. The trick is to isolate the main central part of the company, and make sure it is excellent and tightly focused on the most profitable and fastest growing parts of the business. The truth is that it couldn't look that good without the support of various other subsidiary companies, but the accounting is done to separate things out, even though it's really all directed to the single goal. Many of those subsidiaries may be in less profitable areas, or may even be relatively poorly managed and staffed by third stringers, some of them may even be losing money and be up for sale, but none of this matters as long as the flagship company looks good. In Enron's case, several hundred were apparently offshore tax dodges, to boot. I'd like to give some examples, but I really have nothing more than suspicions... However, I'll say that I'm very glad to have gotten most of my money out of Citibank, and I hope they hold together long enough for me to recover the last bit. Anyway, most companies probably are quite competently managed and not the kind of hollow shell that Enron was. However, the point is that Enron's accounting techniques were not completely unique or preposterous, though Anderson was increasingly nervous, and at the end even destroyed some of the important records.

It's actually a question of balance, and how Enron wound up out of balance. A simple and hopefully relevant example involves the auditors for any publicly held company. You probably know that there are two kinds, internal and external. The internal auditors are employees of the company. They do the internal books and budgets, and follow up to make sure the money is spent the way it's supposed to be spent. They have to account for every nickel and dime (or yen), and they're the guys who say what the bottom line profit and loss is. They are also supposed to make sure no one within the company is playing any games with the money. However, the internal auditors still aren't to be trusted fully, which is where the external auditors come into the picture. That was Anderson in Enron's case. They are an outside company whose special expertise is checking the competence of the internal auditors. They normally don't do all the numbers again, but they are supposed to check enough to offer their official opinion that the internal auditors are giving good scoop. And that's why the external auditors for Enron are also being sued in this mess. They were supposed to detect the problems and warn the stockholders. Kind of hilarious for Enron to fire them at this late stage, but it's also supposed to be part of the external auditor's job to guide the company away from risks that could cause bankruptcy.

The complete economic situation of a company like Enron is obviously very complicated, with various competitive pressures driving things hither and yon. For example, by making its accounting position look good, Enron facilitated its ability to make deals, so sometimes the questionable accounting was a kind of prediction that could become a self-fulfilling prophesy. However, there is also a reality principle involved, and protecting reality is supposed to be one of the roles of the government—defining fair rules and making sure that every company is playing by the same rules. For example, it is basically the government that requires external auditors in the first place. And now we're back to where I think Enron messed up. With their boy Dubya in D.C., they thought they could tee up and really drive a big one. Plop. Fizz. No more Enron. But how many other companies are travelling the same road? Dubya has LOTS of big corporate donors. How many other companies have changed their actions based on their supposed friend in the White House?

An interesting question now is "Who dunnit?" When there's been a crime you're supposed to look for someone who benefitted from it. Near as I can see right now, the only folks to come out well on this one are the Enron executives who dumped hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Enron stock when it was still worth something. The executives actually started selling a while ago, but the critical questions are when did they find out the company was in trouble, and how much stock did they sell after finding out, and I can't find any hard data there. Lots of lawsuits have been filed asking the same questions, but it will surely take years before the courts decide. Some politicians benefitted from the contributions. Most especially, Dubya used the money to bad effect, and as far as I know he isn't even named in any of the lawsuits. Dubya 'wins' again, though it wasn't as good as his big trifecta.

Is there a conclusion lurking around here? Well, let's call it a hypothesis. The GOP has always been the party of big business and big money, and they still are. Doesn't work so well with the voters, since most of them aren't big-time businessmen. The GOP solution? Accuse the Democrats of being the party of big business and big money, and repeat frequently, even if it is mostly a lie. Enron is apparently just a case where big-business crooks got a too much rope from their GOP buddies and managed to hang themselves right proper. Hard for me to believe they have NO imitators. Dubya certainly has plenty of other friends with big corporations. Looking at the ones that already gave him a lot of money, Citibank is standing out again...

26 December 2001

A special note about the Imperial Presidency

Didn't I already write this somewhere on this Web site? Anyway, I can't find it, so I may be repeating myself, but it's quite worth repeating that the president is not any kind of a deity or god.Popup Note It would be easy to think otherwise if you read some of the commentary, though the commentary never addresses the real reasons for this deification. It's also very clear that this is NOT what the designers of our government wanted. They knew very well that any government is made of people, and they will act like human beings, not like gods, and to the best of their ability they designed the government to minimize these problems for many years. Though I do think we were very fortunate that their abilities and wisdom were so far above average, they weren't gods either, and I must sadly conclude that their design for checks and balances based on a clear separation of powers is wearing out.

Such religious commentary about the president actually comes in two flavors, negative and positive, though both are equally harmful in different ways, and both forms are increasing in their intensity over the years. Of course that means that the best examples are the most recent, and so the best examples of negative commentary are the recent criticisms of President Clinton regarding his little affair. No one is saying that it was the right thing to do, but it was a very human error. The BIG problem is that it was very ungodly.PopupNote The loudest critics screamed and cried loudly enough to come within a few partisan votes of success in their destructive plans. Failing there, they continued to do everything they could to disrupt the government and even based their next presidential campaign on the issue.

For positive examples, Reagan and Dubya offer the best examples, though they were rather different instantiations.Popup Note In the case of Reagan, he was nothing but a facade for the religious commentary, and his professional training was quite appropriate—as an actor he played many roles. Though he was never regarded as a great actor, no doubt he found it simpler as president, when he only had one role to play. For Dubya, the intensity of the commentary is actually somewhat stronger, but his ability to properly play the part is amazingly weaker.Popup Note The cognitive dissonance is apparently getting to some of his supporters, who sometimes wind up criticizing him in the religious terms they're supposed to be saving for liberals and other 'enemies of the Fatherland.' Or perhaps they just can't remember any other way to talk now?

So now to the topic of why it happens? Simple, actually. It sounds like religion, and it IS a kind of religion, though a secular one.Popup Note The president has become a kind of supreme deity. So why do people want a god? Because they encounter problems that they can't solve, so they want to appeal to a more powerful being to solve their problems. Actually, that's the lower form of motivation, but it applies to many people, and it actually makes quite a bit of sense as it applies to the president. He really does control vastly more resources than most people, and he really could solve a lot of our personal problems if he would just direct a bit of those resources our way.Popup Note A higher form of basically the same motivation is to want a higher being to provide a higher framework for our incurable and unmerited suffering. As this version applies (somewhat awkwardly) to Dubya, his advisors are supposed to have the complete information that explains why our suffering can't be helped.

My belief is that the founders of our government understood these problems pretty well. It actually helped that they had so much firsthand experience with very human kings who claimed to have divine rights over others. They didn't have a perfect solution, but they did have a number of good ideas. It's really hard to see clearly from so far away, but mostly because our perspective is colored by distorted reporting and more of that idolation that they abhorred. They didn't create a perfect system, but a good system that was flexible and adaptable, and now perhaps the main source of confusion is to blur many of the resulting changes into their original intentions. Some of it was their innovative and excellent ideas, and other parts were added over the years. The most important example here is that they understood that someone had to be responsible for acting on behalf of the government, but that executive authority could be abused and needed to be controlled. The original system of checks and balances mostly involved binding the president to the laws passed by the legislature and putting the spending authority in the part of the legislature most directly linked to the voters. The idea of the judiciary acting as the arbitrator between those branches was added later, but it was a brilliant addition.

For what little it is worth, I mostly blame the negative changes on the same men who are regarded as the greatest presidents, especially Lincoln and FDR. These men faced great crises and rose to meet them, but in their need to act forcefully and effectively, they permanently tilted the balance of power in favor of the executive branch, and ultimately the presidency became imperial and supreme uber alles. It would be interesting to have a debate as to which was more harmful, though I think I'd give the nod to Lincoln for two counts. I credit him as the main creator of the modern political party, which has mostly become a regressive and even repressive institution, and he deliberately cancelled the true intention of the Second Amendment, though it is also true that his decision to oppose succession ultimately led to America's preeminence.

Time for the sad conclusion, and I'll try to keep it brief though there is much more that could be said. The current situation is very different from what it should be. Yes, the Constitution still exists, but most of the important ideas within it are ignored. Just focusing on the examples mentioned above, most of the legislation is now initiated by the executive branch to support their political agenda of the moment, and the position of Congress is basically a trivial tally board. Does the president have the votes or might he have to compromise a bit? Rather than forcing the House to assume full responsibility for the money, the president prepares the budget, and once it is approved, the latest great abuse, the line item veto, allows him to go through and individually kill any expenditure he doesn't approve of. As far as the independence of the judiciary, "our considerations are limited to" the alegal abuse of December 12, 2000. A very sad end, and I hope I'm not caught in the final collapse, which may well come within my lifetime.

Latest Harms of Dubya:


Nothing Succeeds Like Failure:
How to Lose the War on Terrorism without Really Trying,
and become Really (?) Popular in Easy Steps

Since 9/11 we hear lots about the war on terrorism, and so here's a bit more. However, the focus here is mostly on what is required to prevent it, and how goes the war, too. This presentation is focused on the anti-terrorist perspective, but almost everything here has a terrorist perspective, too, and not always the direct opposite, so things get complicated there. However, the bottom line is that dealing with terrorism is complicated, and the conclusion is that Dubya's failures in dealing with such complicated matters are no surprise. Here's the basic outline:

  1. Terrorism must be opposed as effectively as possible,
  2. Dubya's imbalanced approaches obviously failed,
  3. The war on terrorism needs clever tactics, and
  4. We need deep and balanced strategic thinking.

Let's begin with the $64 question: Could the attacks of September 11th been prevented? Actually a trick question. Remember that unless you say yes, then you are saying they can happen again. From the perspective of someone who wants to reassure Americans, this is not a good thing, but... Maybe it's just the way things are in this imperfect world. On the other hand, if you want to say we are secure now, then it must have been possible to be secure before September 11th, and you have to ask why we were not. Or in slightly different words, if it was impossible to be secure at that time, then it must still be impossible now. Well, it seems like all roads lead to to the same Rome—There's no perfect security in this perfect world.

Time to divide the issue on the tactical and strategic levels. Tactics are small scale, and easier to deal with, so that's where I'll start. Tactics are what you use to win a battle, but terrorism doesn't have regular battles. The counterpart for terrorism is the plot, which in most ways is similar to a crime, such as a bank robbery. Perhaps this tactical similarity between terrorist plots and crimes is why most legal theory regards terrorist attacks as crimes, rather than as acts of war. However, for this discussion I'm going to consider plots to be more like races between the terrorists and the defenders.

A new plot has three tactical stages: hatching, preparations, and execution. There are counterstrategies for each stage, though mostly for the last two. The plotters are racing to complete the three stages, and the defenders are racing to disrupt the plot. Very bad when the plotters win the race, but most of the time they don't make it.

For the first stage, about all you can do to abort the hatching of plots is to design systems that have no weaknesses or vulnerabilities, and that's really hard to do. Complicated systems tend to have problems and failures, including disastrous ones, even without deliberate attacks by adversaries.

Complicated plots involve a lot of preparation, and during the preparations the defenders usually have the best chance to detect the plot and break it up. You don't hear so much about these cases, though I'm pretty sure that this is as far as most plots get. This kind of very effective action just doesn't make for big impressessive stories. If it's done properly, there are just a few quiet arrests and some nice, smooth trials followed by nice, long jail sentences. In other cases, the plotters may abandon the plot during this stage, deciding it's unfeasible, or not worth it, or even irrelevant.

Disrupting plots during the executation stage is the stuff that Hollywood loves, so you've seen plenty of movies and television shows with these themes and I don't have to say much. However, I will note that there are some very big differences between real life and the movies. The most important one is that the good guys don't die in most movies. Less important, but still significant is the question of odds. In the movies the good guys are normally outnumbered and outgunned, while in real life the authorities always have more people and more force available. However, this kind of anti-terrorist action is intrinsically very dramatic and exciting.

Each of these terrorist plots is like a new race. On one side, the terrorists are rushing to complete their preparations and execute their plot, and on the other side we have the anti-terrorist forces, our defenders, racing to detect and foil the plots. Who wins a race? It comes down to preparation, effort, and luck. The joke form is that the battle is not always won by the strong, and the race is not always to the swift, but that's the way to bet.

The anti-terrorist preparations have to be broad and balanced, otherwise it's like an athelete who spends one week training one muscle, and the next week working on some other muscle. Such an athelete is not going to win many races. There was actually a very broad and balanced evaluation of domestic airline security completed just as Dubya moved into the White House. It identified a number of problem areas and offered a number of concrete recommendations. It was not ignored—at first. However, it was considered tainted, since it had been performed during the Clinton presidency, so in April, Dubya told Congress to drop the matter and wait for another evaluation to be done by Cheney. The previous report had taken a couple of years to complete, but the new one had not even been started when the attacks of September 11th shuffled all the priorities around. This actually resulted in a violent shift in directions and a sudden, imbalanced, adoption of parts of the earlier report's recommendations.

Effort is mostly a matter of motivation, positive and negative.