Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The outcome of a "robotic" process

Business Times - 04 Aug 2011


The outcome of a 'robotic' process

Compromise deal on debt ceiling plays into the hands of Obama's rivals whose vision may be flawed but is consistent

By LEON HADAR
WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

NOW that 'Watson', the artificial intelligence (AI) computer system developed by IBM, has demonstrated in the US television quiz show Jeopardy that a computer working off a database stuffed with millions of documents culled from various sources could beat a human, it might be interesting to find out whether the IBM researchers could come up with an AI computer system that could be as effective in managing bureaucratic organisations that function in the business and political arenas, including the US presidency.

But then it seems that something close to a POTUS computing system already exists - and it's called 'President Barack Obama'. Indeed, if one examines the domestic and foreign policy decisions that have been made by the current White House occupant, it becomes clear that Mr Obama, not unlike Jeopardy's Watson, or for that matter 'Deep Blue' - IBM's chess-playing computer that had won a six-game match by two wins to one with three draws against world champion Garry Kasparov - knows how to play the game. But not much more.

After absorbing large quantities of information in the form of American history, constitutional law, presidential politics and International Relations 101, Mr Obama has succeeded in matching up to the best and the brightest in the business of running for the presidency and holding to it. And notwithstanding the several glitches that have occurred since he entered office, our president not unlike Watson and Deep Blue has excelled most of the time in offering the correct answer to the specific policy problem - and he has never crashed.

Mr Obama's 'correct' answers are based on a cost-effective examination of the problem that takes into consideration the existing balance of power under which he operates, on the assumption that (in the tradition of American pragmatism) theoretical dogma should not block the road to intelligent practice, and on ensuring that the final decision he makes will not encounter overwhelming political or bureaucratic resistance.

President Obama's handling of the war in Afghanistan and his response to the political upheaval in the Middle East as well as his management of economic policies, including the most recent budget crisis in Washington, reflect this kind of modus operandi. In these and other cases, Mr Obama has tried to provide high-minded rationalisations for his policies - defeating anti-American terrorists in South Asia, cooperating with the forces of change in the Middle East and pursuing a fiscal strategy aimed at advancing a liberal agenda.

But most of the decisions he ended up making had less to do with 'doing the right thing' in terms of grand vision and ideological principles - and more to do with the effective utilisation of political, administrative and legal intelligence he had acquired in order assure that the contending political powers at home and abroad would not acquire enough momentum to challenge his position and crash the system.

Hence considering opposing pressures from the US military and Republican hawks (stay the course!) and anti-war liberals (start withdrawing!) in Washington, and the mishmash of conflicting interests of the players in South Asia, Mr Obama offers a split-in-the-middle policy approach on Afghanistan that then tends to be revised again and again in response to changes in elite and public opinion and in the light of realities on the ground. And all this is done with the use of unmanned drones creating an impression that it's all nothing more than an absorbing video game.

Similar mechanisms were triggered as the so-called Arab Spring was evolving. Estimating that the United States lacks the resources to reverse or advance changes (Egypt; Tunisia) you embrace them, you do nothing (Bahrain; Syria) or 'do something' even if it's not a lot (Libya). While these decisions seem to fall under the rubric of 'realism', they fail to provide the main rationale for a foreign policy grounded in realism - explaining why they help protect US national interest.

But it is the area of economic policy that Mr Obama's dispassionate and almost robotic policymaking process has been so evident. Since coming to office, Mr Obama has been either continuing to pursue his Republican predecessor's approach (bailing out the banks and printing money) or advancing fiscal policies that combined elements of Clintonism (economic stimulus) and Republican ideas (healthcare reform; environmental cap-and-trade). Mr Obama's economic policy team was headed by Wall Street-friendly officials who had served in the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W Bush and whose main goal has been to save the system - not to radically change it.

In fact, Mr Obama's so-called balanced approach to dealing with the federal deficits - by cutting government spending and raising taxes - has been exactly the kind of policies that were adopted by both Democratic and Republican administration in the past.

Moreover, according to the results of public opinion polls, Mr Obama's proposals to get rid of tax cuts and tax loopholes that favour the wealthiest Americans while making some readjustments in the large government-backed social-economic programmes have been backed by the majority of American voters, including the political independent.

From that perspective, Mr Obama was providing the correct answers to the US fiscal problem. In a way, his main error may have been his decision to agree playing in a quiz show where the questions centred exclusively on how to fix the deficits - instead of focusing the debate on the more urgent problems on how to accelerate the economic recovery and create new jobs where the correct answers may have to include perhaps some form of short-term government spending.

But Mr Obama's main policy deficiency as exposed in the just-concluded debate over the debt ceiling may resemble that of Jeopardy's Watson - a failure to integrate the questions into a larger context. In the case of US fiscal dilemmas in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Mr Obama should have recognised that the correct answers are not necessarily those that provide us the most cost-effective strategy to get from 'A' to 'B'.

Indeed, the members of the Tea Party that have been the main driving force behind the debate - from which they emerge as the real winners - understand that dealing successfully with political and economic crises requires more than just intelligence and a robotic responses to various pressures by friends and foes. A real leader is tested in times of crisis in his ability to provide a coherent sense of why we need to get from 'A' to 'B' and the ability to rally the elites and the public behind his or her policy.

Mr Obama has failed in this last test. Ironically, the 'automatic trigger mechanisms' included in the compromise deal are close to being robotic. If anything, the outcome of the debt ceiling debate that seems to focus more with a process - a complex framework for fixing the deficit, than with an outcome - a concrete set of priorities for America's economic future.

It plays directly into the hands of Mr Obama's political rivals whose vision may be flawed but at least consistent. He shouldn't be surprised therefore if the American people will decide to replace the human automoton in the White House next year.

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