Posted by: Jeff | November 13, 2009

Approaching Afghanistan Like An Economist

Atlantic blogger Megan McArdle doesn’t actually say that’s what Obama is doing, but that seems to be the unspoken implication of this post.

I do think that Barack Obama has to be congratulated on two things:  courage, and a willingness to accept that there are sunk costs.  Assuming that this war isn’t winnable, the easiest thing politically would have been to send more troops into Afghanistan, some to be killed, some to kill innocent Afghan civilians.  Just let the thing drag on at the edge of the national consciousness, and hope for a miracle, or leave a mess for your successor.  It might have cost him in the future, as the death toll mounted, but the death toll in Afghanistan has been relatively low, and he needs political capital now, when he’s trying to push through the most ambitious parts of his platform.

The other thing he’s done is avoid the sunk costs fallacy.  This is the economist’s term for “throwing good money after bad”, and as anyone who’s ever worked at a big corporation knows, it’s a really common way to do yourself, and others, a lot of damage.  The bigger the initial investment, the more tempting it is to double down in an attempt to “salvage” the money you’ve already put in.

The problem is, whatever you’ve already sunk into the project is gone.  Whether that project is a war or a new drug you’re researching, you should be looking forward, not back.  If the project’s returns justify what you’d need to address, it makes sense; otherwise, you should drop it, no matter how much you’ve already lost.

That’s very hard for most people to do, so I respect the fact that Barack Obama seems to be willing go there.  He may be wrong about the war’s winnability.  But he’s thinking about the problem the right way.

McArdle seems to define winnability as whether we can build Afghanistan a relatively secure and stable government able to stand on its own two feet. By that definition, I think the war is pretty obviously unwinnable, so that would be my one area of disagreement. Of course, like she says, she’s not an expert on these matters, and I’m not either.

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