Monday, May 15, 2006

Book Review: A Blueprint not worth reading

Blueprint For Action - A Future Worth Creating, by Thomas P.M. Barnett

Blueprint For Action is Thomas P.M. Barnett's sequel to his blockbuster work of international strategy,The Pentagon's New Map. It is a sequel in the truest sense, since it is extremely difficult to understand this new book without first reading New Map.

Cursed with one of the most boring titles one can imagine for what is in fact a very creative and exciting work, The Pentagon's New Map, published November 2004, is a very clear and understandable outline of Barnett's view on how American and Western foreign policy should proceed, in our post Iron Curtain, post 9/11 world. In it, Barnett argues that the main division in international affairs is no longer ideological, as it was during the Cold War, but economic. He divides the world into the 'Core' states and 'Gap' states. Core states are connected and economically advanced, such as the G20 states and rising economies like South Africa and Chile. Gap states, on the other hand, are unconnected Third World states, such as Sudan, Iran and Colombia, which are isolated from the modern world, either by choice or circumstance. Barnett divides the world neatly into these two camps, and argues that the world's route to a lasting security lies in expanding the Core and connecting more of the Gap states to the rest of the world, bringing them prosperity and democracy, with its benefits of human rights and justice in the process.

In New Map, Barnett lays out a strategy for the achievement of peace and stability in the world in our lifetimes. He sees a particularly vital role in the stabilizing nation-building prowess of the Core states, especially in combination with the huge military power of the United States. Importantly, he defines China, Russia, and India as Core states, meaning they are America's natural allies in helping Gap states make the transition to functioning prosperous societies. Barnett wrote this book from the perspective of an insider in the U.S. military. A fascinating subtext in the narrative is his story of how he has had his ideas largely accepted in the American military, to the extent that the phases 'Core' and 'Gap' are now commonly used in American strategic discussion.

In Blueprint for Action, Barnett follows up on the ideas he first laid out in The Pentagon's New Map. But Blueprint has meandering writing and a fair number of non-sequiturs. The author spends too much time talking about how successful his earlier book was. Blueprint has a surprising number of personal asides, first person mentions and even detailed discussions about the author's family, with a lot of detail about his adoption of a Chinese girl. It contains a segment on the short period as a teenager when he was into New Wave music. There is a lot of chaff here, as the author mistakenly assumes that the readers are as interested in him as much as his ideas.

Interspersed within the meandering, the non-sequiturs and the personal indulgences, dedicated readers can still find fascinating passages about how the world could work, along with some very compelling analysis. But it's not up to the standard of his first book. The Pentagon's New Map merited a recommendation. Blueprint does not.


The Truth, by Al Franken

This book is presented as the follow-up to the bestselling and very funny Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, a book that received a very strong endorsement from this column.

This time, comedian and political satirist Franken has shifted his target, away from the right-wing commentators like Ann Coulter, who vocally and dogmatically support the Bush Republicans, to the Bush Republican regime itself. And while Franken has not really altered his style or format, this seemingly subtle shift in focus has resulted in a far less entertaining work.

Franken's standard method is to use his well honed satiric gifts to expose the errors of his chosen targets, most of whom are ranking Republican politicians. What sets him apart, and makes him of interest to those who follow politics, is that he uses rigorous research methods, and backs up all his assertions with verifiable facts.

Franken, however, is also an unrepentant Democratic partisan. When attacking hysterical right-wing commentators, this actually gave his work a welcome edge. When attacking Republican politicians, however, this partisanship renders the critiques merely partisan and the humour is lost. Lying Liars stood out as a unique, drop-dead funny, original critique of the U.S. right-wing media elites, while The Truth reads as a tired and only vaguely humorous polemic.

While The Truth is at times an interesting enough read, it simply does not stand out in the crowded field of left-wing satires of the Bush Republicans. The overall tone is like being cornered at the end of a cocktail party by someone who is bitter, tired and in need of a drink.

Though the events and issues Franken tackles in The Truth may be worthy of our scrutiny, he has failed in his primary task to entertain the reader.


How good is your political judgment?

A Book Review on Expert Political Judgment: How good is it? How can we know?

By Philip E. Tetlock

Lobbyists are by nature considered experts on politics. We are paid to offer opinions and assessments on a wide variety of political issues and events, so we hold our political judgment in high esteem and take considerable pride in the value it delivers to our clients. The expertise to deliver accurate and timely expert political opinion is a fundamental part of our skill set as lobbyists, and certainly one of the most challenging. Still, in spite of our best efforts, even our most considered and thoughtful predictions sometimes turn out to be wrong. This is both an embarrassing and frustrating experience. An understanding of how we develop our opinions and how to identify the errors in their development is something of considerable real value. And certainly, we all want to be more right more often, if only for the elevated gravitas.

Yet political judgment is usually evaluated relative to the conventional wisdom of the time, or the judger's personal bias, as opposed to any empirical measure. For very practical reasons, it is rare that experts are judged on how their political judgments perform over time - and whether, with the passage of time, their accuracy improves.

In Expert Political Judgment, psychologist Philip E. Tetlock, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, goes back 20 years to examine political judgments that were predictive of events to come, then he rates how accurate these opinions turned out to be. In the process he reveals all manner of nuances about how political judgments are developed, delivered, perceived and finally judged.

In November of 2005, just as the recent Federal election was called, PAAC members were witness to some fairly impressive political forecasting at the Stephen Clarkson presentation to PAAC promoting his new book. At that event, Clarkson, former Mulroney Cabinet Minister Tom Hockin and Navigator's Robin Sears all predicted Stephen Harper's Conservatives would win a minority government in the January 2006 election. Since the conservatives were behind in the polls at the time and the campaign had yet to begin, it was a daring contrarian opinion that could have easily led to a loss of face in less than two months. Moreover, even in this short period, a number of unforeseen events could and did rapidly shift public opinion -- such as the RCMP announcement of an investigation at the federal Ministry of Finance and an outbreak of gun violence in Canada's largest city. Such is the volatile nature of political events, and the vulnerability of predictions.

With that in mind the exceedingly high number of false predictions Tetlock found in his research should come as no surprise. What appear to be seasoned and wise political judgments, when reviewed through the clarity of hindsight, often turn out to be laughably wrong. This won't be news to anyone and thankfully Tetlock doesn't dwell on this or present it as some revelatory insight. Instead, Tetlock, uses this fundamental finding to delve deeply into the very nature of political judgment and in the process he develops tools for analysing it retrospectively, such as "fuzzy-set adjustments" to award partial credit when predictions were mostly correct, and "difficulty adjustments" which award more points for taking on more challenging subjects.

The most helpful part of this book may be Tetlock's observation that what experts think is less predictive of their opinions' accuracy than the manner in which they think. Tetlock concludes that those with a broad base of knowledge -- "the foxes" -- tend to perform better over the long haul than "hedgehogs," whose backgrounds are specialized in one area and who work narrowly focused within it. Interestingly enough he also finds that there is an inverse relationship between what the media or the general public value in pundits and the best scientific indicators of good judgment. In short, the more obtuse and stubborn a media pundit is, the greater his or her chance of being both very popular and very wrong. Undoubtedly this is a relief to those of us who have long since given up being astonished at how Linda McQuaig or Ann Coulter continue being published, while exciting young and broad-minded thinkers like Andrew Potter toil in relative obscurity. It leads the reader to ponder the question of just how much time is wasted by the media giving value to arguments whose sole purpose would seem to be to provide a false dynamic to political discourse.

Expert Political Judgment stands out in the field as a work of exceptional acuity and value. I can't recommend this book enough. Every contentious lobbyist should put it on their professional development list for this year.

Highly Recommended.