Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Amazon in DC-area is bad... for America

I'm not a NIMBY.

I don’t want Amazon to come to the DC area. But this isn’t personal. It will probably make traffic worse and it will drive up real estate prices – but I already own a home, so I can cash out. (And I don't have a particular problem with Amazon or any of the technorati - they aren't as smart as they think they are, but really, who is?)

My issue is that if Amazon comes to the DC area (three of the final twenty locations for its new second HQ are in the Capital Region) it will have ripple effects on the U.S. government and the country.
Amazon could turn DC into a jungle!

DC area real estate prices are high, not as high as the Bay Area, but high. Amazon, with its infusion of high-paying jobs, both from direct hires and the attendant businesses that will start or expand in its wake, will push real estate prices much higher. The backbone of the greater DC area is civil servants, government workers. They are compensated well, but not extravagantly. Even the very, very top-level government salaries (with some specific exceptions)are well below $200,000 – certainly enough to be comfortable, but not remarkable by tech world standards. A steep rise in real estate prices will make it difficult for government professionals – civil servants who have valuable skills and could find alternative employment – to get by. They will find more lucrative professions, exacerbating the existing brain drain of experienced civil servants. Of course, these rising real estate prices will also be bad for the less well-compensated – mid and lower level civil servants, teachers, and, well, everyone else. This broader effect will be bad for the region, but for the nation as a whole, losing talented civil servants could be devastating. Further, young people may be further dissuaded from entering public service.

At the same time, one area where the U.S. government faces ongoing and severe challenges is attracting tech talent. Having Amazon in the neighborhood will create extremely lucrative opportunities that talented tech workers will find difficult to ignore. But government needs for computer science talent, from programming to theory to data science are significant. National security is one particular field that will suffer, but they are not alone. Managing and processing complex networks and enormous amounts of data is critical for agencies to serve the American people. But anyone who shows much talent – particularly if real estate prices are rising – will find the siren song of Amazon tough to resist.

Finally, the DC area, on the whole is already wealthy. The stability of government work insulated the region from some of the worst fallout of the great recession. This isn't to say there aren't wealth gaps and problems, but frankly Amazon might make them worse - not better. Anyway, the DC area does not need this – lots of other places in America do.

I don't blame local politicians for pursuing Amazon, and the online shopping behemoth will probably not factor the good of the country in its decision. But here's hoping...

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Robots are coming, but maybe not to consumers

Reading coverage of the Consumer Electronics Show, it does not appear that the robots left anyone terribly impressed. We all have images of Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons, which effortlessly and with little instruction just does all the housework. The reality is that this is not coming any time soon. Folding laundry turns out to be really, really hard. So the Consumer Electronics Show features a lot of wonky systems that don't work very well. Gadget junkies may be entranced, but regular consumers don't need an expensive toy that will take longer to get to do a task than it would take to just do the task. (If we enjoy that kind of frustration we can just try to get our kids to do their chores.)

Rosie won't be coming today.
Consumers want devices that, with limited set-up, work. Robots, autonomous systems, are run by machine learning algorithms - that means they have to learn. Learning means they have to be taught, it also means they will make mistakes. Who the hell has time for this kind of thing?

For some applications, this can work. Smart thermostats are an example. Preferences are not that hard to learn and mistakes are not catastrophic. But think about a smart refrigerator that could inventory your food, recommend meals, and order necessities. This sounds great, but then consider the problems in implementation. For starters, in a typical home there might be a dozen places where food is stored - not just the refrigerator. Now you need smart pantries and spice cabinets, etc.

Let's imagine that this smart home can monitor your food supply, make recipe recommendations, identify when items are needed and then order them. This would actually be pretty great. There would be hiccups of course, plus the system would have a lot of pretty personal information. There might be a time consuming learning curve as you taught it what recipes you liked and what kind of food you wanted to have around. But it could work. It might even be fun.

But here's the ugly secret. The thinking is relatively easy. The sensing is very hard. Presumably all of the food going into your smart home has some sort of electronic marker allowing your kitchen to record it. Then there will be a bevy of sensors to follow the consumption path of each item. This is a lot of sensors and a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong. Then you would need to teach it what was a priority. (Order pasta when we are down to one box etc.)

It is all theoretically possible, but there are so many things that can go wrong and working with it might be more trouble than it's worth. You can just scan your fridge and pantry and make a shopping list in a lot less time.

But that doesn't mean robots aren't coming.

Serious Users
This smart refrigerator or kitchen is not worth your time. But a hospital refrigeration system for storing blood and medicine is a different story. The hospital already has a staff and systems for monitoring these things. The value of the items in question are very high - both in cost but also in consequence (you need to have the right supplies on hand and usable.)

If a hospital recognizes that there will be significant gains in efficiency using a smart refrigeration system, they can make the investment both in money and time to learn the systems and blend their existing processes in with the system's functionality. Hotels, restaurants, and a vast range of other organizations might also be willing to make this investment. Managing food inventory is a huge issue for the hospitality industry.

One can imagine lots of other smart systems that might not be worth the effort for a home, but would be for a large-scale enterprise. This will lead to an iterative process. The first enterprises to purchase the smart refrigeration system would probably be larger (maybe not the biggest) and have some experience integrating new technology. In turn the vendors would also learn what it took to meet customer needs and be better positions to market their systems to more conservative buyers. In time the technology would become commonplace, lowering costs (again both financial but also in the time required to learn the system) and - at some point - maybe becoming a consumer product.

At this point the autonomous systems in questions are not there. The models will need to learn, but at the same time we need to learn the models.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Trumpest in a Teapot: On the new U.S. Embassy in London

In typical "presidential" fashion, that man in the White House tweeted that he would not go to London to open the U.S. Embassy, because we got a bad deal on the Embassy.

Maybe if it had more gold? New U.S. Embassy in London
Now this does little for State Department morale or Anglo-American relations. It is entirely possible that the "bad deal" is a convenient excuse for skipping a trip in which the president would be greeted by large, loud, unhappy crowds and unpleasant meetings with frosty British counterparts. Although he does fawn over royalty, this trip would probably not feature golden orbs and the queen would not be gauche and let him fondle the royal sceptre.

But let's take the president at his word, he thinks we got a bad deal on the Embassy. That does not mean that we did (the details are not public.) It is also an open question as to whether or not the president's judgment on what constitutes a good deal -- even in real estate, where he is supposedly an expert -- is very good. Consider this snippet from a profile of Trump confidant Tom Barrack:

But let's pretend the U.S. got a bad deal on selling its old Embassy and building the new one. Does it matter? Is it an issue worth the president's time and energy?

I chided candidate Barack Obama for promising to go over the budget line-by-line. It is a waste of time. Spending a day to kill some minor initiative and save a little money is not a terrific use of the president's most valuable and limited resource - time.

Of course the president could delegate this to the Secretary of State, that just eats up the Secretary of State's time and energy - which is also in short supply.

(No doubt at this point readers - should I have any - are asking why this is in TerrorWonk about national security rather than VeepCritique, where I talk about presidents and stuff. We're coming to that.)

But there is something else going on. If Embassy construction issues are raised at the presidential or even secretarial level that will engage their counterparts in the other country - who will not appreciate having this relatively minor issue on their desk. But, if the U.S. insists, they will consider it, but now it becomes another card in their hand. If they help the United States on this issue, they will expect certain things in return. 

Most importantly, however, U.S. relationships with other countries exist in time and space. Our relationship with any given country is not a one-off, it continues. A thing done in the past affects what happens in the future. At the same time, what the U.S. does in its relations with one country shapes how other countries see the U.S. So if the U.S. is seen as nickel and diming its closest ally over an embassy, to save maybe a few hundred million dollars (which in the context of a multi-trillion dollar budget is chump change) that will have a cost. The U.K. will see us differently (we have a special relationship, but we dare not take that for granted - it can fray.) Other countries too will see us differently, and change their behaviors accordingly.

On the other hand, given this president's penchant for impulsive actions in highly volatile situations that could have disastrous consequences - maybe it would be for the best if he focused real estate deals.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Balancing Pakistan...with Iran?

The illustrious Christine Fair has an article in Foreign Policy discussing what's going on between the U.S. and Pakistan entitled Pakistan Has All the Leverage Over Trump. The title pretty much tells you what you need to know. If you are going to fight a war in Afghanistan you have to get there (it's landlocked.) For us, right now, Pakistan is the way to get there. Unfortunately their priorities do not match ours. Fair writes:

One can argue that the United States lost the war in Afghanistan when it went to war with Pakistan, one of the states most committed to undermining U.S. efforts there. Whereas the United States wants a stable Afghan government that can resist its predatory neighbors and keep Islamist militants out of the government and prevent these militants from using Afghanistan as a sanctuary to train, recruit, and plan terrorist attacks in the region and beyond, this is precisely the Afghanistan that Pakistan wants.
Fair (who, full disclosure, I know, like, and admire) notes that Obama ran into this reality as well and - as Trump is doing now - tried to use U.S. aid as leverage over Pakistan. Obama went further, threatening, and to a limited extent carrying out military strikes on Pakistan. Unfortunately, Pakistani behavior has not really changed. Hanging over this, Fair observes, and I've thought about it as well, is that Pakistan also threatens us through its very fragility. That is, if we don't support Pakistan financially it could become a nuclear armed-failed state awash in Islamist terrorists. (Nightmares anyone?)

Fair points out, as she has for years, that there is an alternative to our logistic dependence on Pakistan, a route into Afghanistan starting at the Iranian port of Chabahar. Fair notes that Iran was willing to work with us after 9/11 but we rebuffed them. But now things may have changed:
But most Americans recoil at the suggestion of cooperating with Iran, arguing that Tehran is a potential nuclear-proliferating sponsor of terrorism. Needless to say, Pakistan is an actual nuclear-proliferating sponsor of terrorism. Moreover, Pakistan is actually more dangerous than Iran: Tehran’s terrorist proxies are regional menaces rather than the international, hydra-headed scourges cultivated by Islamabad.
Under the Obama administration, the United States made unprecedented progress in thawing relations with Iran with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, which opened up at least the possibility of exploring the idea of moving supplies from the port in Chabahar.
I am not as sanguine as Fair about Iran's behavior. Their record as supporters of terrorism is pretty extensive and their activities across the Middle East represent a strategic problem. Even if we did recognize Iran as the lesser evil to Pakistan there are formidable domestic constituencies heavily opposed to this opening. Further, a number of our allies in the Middle East really, really do not like Iran. Would we want to upend our relations with them so we could fight in Afghanistan? Tough call.

Do we even want to be fighting in Afghanistan. There is a strong argument that our continued presence there is a case of the sunk costs fallacy - we can't quite because we've already invested so much. There is the concern that if leave and the Taliban take over (as seems likely), Afghanistan will again become a locus for international terrorism. I'm actually less worried about that. 9/11 happened, in part, but global attention was not on international terrorism. Now it is and while various counter-terror capabilities might need to be expanded, that's way cheaper than fighting in Afghanistan.

My argument for staying in Afghanistan would be the humanitarian one. The people of Afghanistan did not ask to be the crucible on which the Cold War ended or for their own resulting decades of civil war. Things there are very bad now, but there have also been remarkable gains (at least in some parts of the country).

There is another reason, besides enabling the fight in Afghanistan, to turn to Iran. That is Pakistan itself. It is, as I've written, an international basket-case. Without serious reforms it is difficult to see how it can face its multi-pronged economic, social, and environmental challenges. If we don't need Pakistan for other foreign policy goals, we are in better shape to try to influence Pakistan itself, we change who has leverage. For Pakistan the core issue, from the very founding of the state, has been its conflict with India. This obsession helped enable the Pakistani military to dominate the state, making vast claims on the nation's resources - leading to or exacerbating the various structural deficits threatening the state itself. Can we push and prod Pakistan into new directions? Maybe, probably not - but unless we decouple them from our Afghanistan policy moves in that direction don't stand a chance.

And what of Iran? There is stuff doing there, I don't claim to have any insight whatsoever. Can they lead to new opportunities? Not really soon. We don't know where this will lead. Could we get a new Iran that can become a close ally and utterly changes and recounces its past behavior? Maybe, probably not. Can we get an Iran that we can do pragmatically do business with? That seems more likely, but working with them will require adroit diplomacy both with Iran, other players in the region, and domestically.

Time will tell.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Writing Mad: Our Failed Public Diplomacy Campaigns

I try to affect a mild analytic tone in my writing here (which probably doesn't get me many readers.) But today I can't, I am really mad. On Christmas, The Washington Post ran this story on how the U.S. bureaucracy could not pull together an effective response to Russian information operations.

Here is are two critical clips, but by all means, read the entire article.

Above, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy had a creative idea for leveraging the fantastic content generated by the American entertainment industry as a public diplomacy tool to counter the Kremlin. But, the material is already under contract and it just couldn't happen.

Here again, a clever official at State has a plan to use cutting edge social media analytics to build networks to counter Kremlin propaganda networks. Great, but State cannot carry out public diplomacy on the American people, so it couldn't happen.

What made me so angry?
Am I mad at the State Department lawyers who wouldn't permit the project to go ahead? No, they are there for a reason. Our bureaucracies operate under constraints that reflect our values and priorities. 

Let me step back.

Since 9/11 I have gone to hundreds of think tank events, public forums, and other events where the great and good explain the world. I've even spoken at a few of them. All of them talked about the need to fight "The War or Ideas" or "Counter the Narrative." 

At one, discussing ISIS, about two years ago I said: "I've gone to so many of these events over the past fifteen years ago and everyone says we need to win the war of ideas. But we still haven't really committed to doing anything about it."

The speaker observed that ISIS propaganda works differently from al-Qaeda propaganda, so past efforts aren't effective.

My rejoinder was, "Fair enough, but that's like talking about needing snow tires when we still haven't bought a car!"

The speaker acknowledged my point. It isn't that State was blindsided by Russian propaganda. They were, but that is going to happen. It isn't that we probably shouldn't have dismantled our public diplomacy infrastructure after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Again, we shouldn't have, but we were feeling good about ourselves.

It is that - and I've written about this before - despite talking about it, we still have not established the bureaucratic infrastructure for effective public diplomacy. Given time, work arounds can be developed to bureaucratic constraints. If the U.S. government had really been working these issues (not the individuals - who are trying - but the institutions) then there would have been a range of ideas and capabilities available. They might need to be repurposed from countering radical Islam to countering the Kremlin, but at least there would have been frameworks already established. 

Failure of Leadership
Ultimately, to get results investments need to be made. It is that simple. Yes there is political turnover, but plenty of agencies have sufficient resources to build and maintain capabilities regardless of political leadership. DOD maintains a vast range of capabilities regardless of who is in power. If we want effective public diplomacy we need the personnel and the funding to create ongoing, continuing capabilities - sort of like the infrastructure we have for financial sanctions.

We often hear that U.S. public diplomacy has difficulty adapting to new media. Fair enough, but if the resources are there, then they can have people looking over the horizon at what is coming next. If they are completely overwhelmed by their inboxes there is no time. Further, with resources they can break the bureaucratic log-jams. Doing this requires people, to do research, attend meetings, and brainstorm work-arounds.

A corollary to this is that public diplomacy is a strategic afterthought, off in a corner. That reduces synergies. If public diplomacy is understood as a central, critical element (DIMEC? the C is for communications) other components of the U.S. government can contribute. 

I am still pissed that almost a decade ago we deported the brother of Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafez Saeed. The brother, a Muslim cleric in Sharon, Massachusetts, desperately wanted to stay in the U.S. and was much loved in his town (the rabbis went to bat for him.) Talk about a potential public diplomacy asset!!! But instead we deported him and he signed on with his brother.

But unless there is real bureaucratic heft behind public diplomacy, other agency prerogatives - such as Justice's desire to convict people - will prevail.

None of this stuff is easy. There are a lot of other priorities. But really, we've had a decade of complaining about this issue and no action.

I'll write about this later, but State has its own basket of fundamental structural problems.

And no real public diplomacy effort is likely in this administration where the entire State Department is being defenestrated, the very concept of diplomacy is not understood, and our president's toxicity is spoiling our world-beating brand.

Still, I'm mad about this ongoing failure.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Odds of Catastrophe Under the Current Administration

As 2017 comes to an end, much to the surprise of many, the world has not. Well, not yet, there's still a week. One of the things I worry about given our incompetent and neuroses driven president is the potential for stumbling into a really big catastrophe.

Not the tax bill. Yes, it's lousy, but it will not destroy the country or create huge mass suffering and it is reversible. I'm thinking more along the lines of what has happened in Puerto Rico (which is atrocious) happening nationwide. Just something big and abominable - something that makes 9/11 look tiny, like say, a war with North Korea.

We are probably not going to have a war with North Korea
Some knowledgeable people are very, very worried about this possibility. Others might argue that there is a sort of strategy of compellence evolving. Lots of threats and sanctions to force the North Koreans to the negotiating table on our terms (see below). One can see the logic of this strategy, but also recognize that, when deal with a paranoid (rational, but paranoid) regime, there is a tremendous potential for accidents. In international affairs, signaling can be a dicey business. A threat and a move interpreted by Pyongyang as hostile or a move toward pre-emption, and we could end up in a shooting war. And once that kind of thing starts, it will get very bloody very fast.

Tweetstorm explaining why war with DPRK isn't likely
I don't think that is going to happen. But here's the thing, if the probability very low, it is now low. In the world of intelligence analysis
, words are considered very poor tools for probabilities. It is important to assign number, because what is low probability - 5%, 25%? It matters.

So let's say that overall the probability of war with North Korea was 1%. Could happen, don't worry too much about it. But, with ill-considered rhetoric flying around, perhaps it is up to 10%. That is still very unlikely, but higher than it should be. Stuff that is 10% likely happens and when it is as catastrophic as a nuclear war with North Korea, you really want to keep it as low as possible.

It's the economy stupid
North Korea is not the only - or even the first - nightmare scenario I worry about it. I also worry about the debt ceiling. They keep making temporary deals to raise it. But, if they should fail to make this deal and the U.S. starts defaulting on its debt, that would send unbelievable shockwaves to the global economy. We could plunge the world into an economic meltdown. Now, to be clear, this is also not likely. First, Congress will keep coming to agreements and if they miss a little, there are contingency plans that would buy a little extra time. But, given the administration's incompetence, not just the White House - also the Secretary of Treasury - one can see this happening through miscalculation.

That isn't the only scenario. What about the President, in a fit of pique, ending NAFTA. Besides possibly triggering a huge recession, it could also push Mexico into a serious political instability. Again, not likely - but likelier.

There are probably other scenarios I haven't thought of. Under Bush 43 they had the 1% doctrine, that is if a terrorist threat seemed 1% likely they had to treat it as highly probable. In retrospect, it was a pretty problematic doctrine.

I have my 10% doctrine, outlier scenarios that would normally be very highly unlikely (say 1%) are now just highly unlikely (say 10%). Things that are only 10% likely probably won't happen. But if you roll the dice often enough...

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thankful for the United States

Right now, my country, the United States is in a pretty bad way. It isn't just about our politics (I can only write so much about that topic.) But wage stagnation and inequality has placed the American dream (or basic security) out of reach of so many. The ongoing legacy of slavery has re-emerged in stark ways. There are so many unnecessary petty cruelties visited on so many Americans (including those who are among us but don't have citizenship). I cannot list them all. (There is also the terrible treatment women must endure - but while I am completely sympathetic to this problem - it is not a problem unique to the United States. Sadly, for so much of human history women have been treated unjustly.)

Today we gather for one of our great - perhaps our greatest - national holiday, Thanksgiving. Of course the day itself is now complicated. The Pilgrims survived thanks to gifts from the native Americans. Those gifts have been repaid - an infinity fold - in murder and theft.

But I still love this country. First, every nation is built on a pile of bones. History is complicated. But the United States was founded on ideals. We do not live up to these ideals, and while it is easy to castigate us for this - no one could live up to our ideals. But we do try, and when we have we have done great things. At home, while so much of our wealth was built on slavery, we also fought a long and terrible war to end it.

Abroad we have done many awful things. This comes with being a great power. But (and you have to grade on a curve here) we are the least bad great power ever. We rebuilt Europe and Japan after WWII. We have promoted freedom and prosperity with at least some success. We have - at our best - been a shining example.

And for me, my life has been very comfortable. But my people, the Jewish people, have been persecuted terribly across the globe. While things have not always been easy for Jews in the United States, it is hard to think of another well place where Jews have been as successful and safe.

So I am thankful and remain thankful and will use my remaining time to help make sure we live up to our better angels and not become just another country.

I'm also thankful for the podcast The Hilarious World of Depression. Seriously grateful.