Ghost Schools
July 9, 2015 7:44 AM   Subscribe

"Over and over, the United States has touted education — for which it has spent more than $1 billion — as one of its premier successes in Afghanistan, a signature achievement that helped win over ordinary Afghans and dissuade a future generation of Taliban recruits.... ut a BuzzFeed News investigation — the first comprehensive journalistic reckoning, based on visits to schools across the country, internal U.S. and Afghan databases and documents, and more than 150 interviews — has found those claims to be massively exaggerated, riddled with ghost schools, teachers, and students that exist only on paper. The American effort to educate Afghanistan’s children was hollowed out by corruption and by short-term political and military goals that, time and again, took precedence over building a viable school system. And the U.S. government has known for years that it has been peddling hype."
posted by roomthreeseventeen (47 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm shocked, shocked to find that misrepresentation has been going on here.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:02 AM on July 9, 2015 [17 favorites]




Truth is the first casualty of war education.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:10 AM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


The author's a friend and former colleague of mine, and I am dazzled by the depth of this. It's (AFAIK) her first piece for Buzzfeed and I know that she's been working on it for months. It's excellent investigative reporting, and I hope that the article will have life beyond a couple days of people passing it around and saying "can you believe this shit?"

I avoid Buzzfeed's stupid listicles as though they're covered in flies, but if they're paying for stuff like this they can't be all bad.
posted by Mayor Peace Love and Unity at 8:11 AM on July 9, 2015 [9 favorites]


Could someone throw down an ELI5 about why we sent an army into Afghanistan? No really, I did not get it then, don't get it now.
posted by sammyo at 8:11 AM on July 9, 2015


I'm shocked, shocked to find that misrepresentation has been going on here.

Lol I was coming in to post a version of this comment.

Anyway it's an index to how poisoned our policy debate is. Schools can be touted as an important benefit of our war efforts for years -- who can be against schools? So let's do that surge! It's an expensive war, but they need us here! And it turns out to be misinformation.

Military public affairs seems to be especially untrustworthy, at least generalizing from a few recent scandals: the supposed rescue of the supposedly kidnapped Jessica Lynch in Iraq; the supposed heroic death of Pat Tillman; the convenient, retracted fantasy about how Osama bin Laden used one of his wives as a human shield while shooting US dudes with a fictitious AK-47; the way any man or boy of at least 16 who is killed in a drone strike automatically counts as a terrorist fighter (these last two may be more the fault of the White House specifically); and now this.
posted by grobstein at 8:16 AM on July 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


I avoid Buzzfeed's stupid listicles as though they're covered in flies, but if they're paying for stuff like this they can't be all bad.

Yeah, would like to see more of this. From the Buzzfeed piece:

It was that way across Afghanistan, with school after school visited by BuzzFeed News showing fewer students than were on the books. In 2011 and 2012, USAID sent monitors to many of the schools it had funded to check the number of students and other key information. Since then it has relied almost exclusively on data provided by the Afghan Ministry of Education to determine how many students and teachers are in schools. But no matter who came up with the official count, it often exaggerated the reality on the ground.

See, this is what you get with actual investigative reporting. So Kardashian away if this is what comes out the other side. And the people who would rather read listicles probably won't slog through a long-form investigative piece anyway.

Past as prelude, in a way:

BuzzFeed News spot-checked more than 50 American-funded schools across seven Afghan provinces, most of which were battlefield provinces — the places that mattered most to the U.S. effort to win hearts and minds, and into which America poured immense sums of aid money.

Kathy Gannon, previously (some links in that FPP are now dead), on US cold war education efforts in the region, from which she takes the title for her (excellent, BTW) book I is for Infidel:

Her title is drawn from an English primer printed in the United States for Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan during the Soviet occupation. The book, Gannon writes, 'taught the alphabet by using such examples as: J is for Jihad, and K is for Kalashnikov, and I is for infidel."
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:21 AM on July 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


Could someone throw down an ELI5 about why we sent an army into Afghanistan? No really, I did not get it then, don't get it now.

Initially we did it because we had to do something in the wake of 9/11. To put the best spin on it: the 9/11 attacks called for decisive action against Osama bin Laden. He was known to have refuge in Afghanistan, and was running training camps there.

We called up the Taliban government and asked them to give him up. They said no. (Not sure about this part of the story.) So we invaded, to get him ourselves.

Now, it's not clear why this casus belli -- refusal to extradite, basically -- calls for a major ground invasion and deposing the sitting government, but that's what we decided to do. The Taliban certainly seemed like bad guys. I guess we decided to treat 9/11 as an act of war against the United States. By refusing to give us Bin Laden, the Taliban showed that they were not "with us," but were "with the terrorists," and so were implicitly at war with us. (I doubt the Taliban saw it that way -- most national government regimes try to avoid being at war with the United States.)

Dunno. There it is.
posted by grobstein at 8:23 AM on July 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


I remember from fairly early in the war a lot of US military propaganda about how many schools they'd built in Iraq. Left unsaid was who exactly had reduced the previous schools to rubble.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:24 AM on July 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


But a BuzzFeed News investigation — the first comprehensive journalistic reckoning, based on visits to schools across the country, internal U.S. and Afghan databases and documents, and more than 150 interviews — has found those claims to be massively exaggerated

In the year 2015, ESPN is tweeting NFL players' medical charts, reality television stars are running for president, and BuzzFeed is the only rag reporting on massive policy failures.

It's a future even Gibson could have never imagined.
posted by Mayor West at 8:27 AM on July 9, 2015 [11 favorites]


We called up the Taliban government and asked them to give him up. They said no.

This is wrong in an important way: they said they *would* hand him over *if* they were shown evidence of Bin Laden's complicity in the 9/11/2011 terrorist attacks. The US did not even bother to consider this offer, and started bombing.

I would note that the US harbors plenty of what other countries consider international terrorists (to say nothing of the people sitting in the White House, etc.), so this is setting quite a dangerous precedent. (But of course, no country would dare invade the US.)

There's also the further background of the US funding Mujahideen in Afghanistan to push out the Soviets. Once the Soviet-Afghan war ended, these same fighters took control of the country and caused such havoc such that the Taliban -- which eventually consolidated power in Afghanistan -- was seen as a stabilizing force, even with their awful social policies. One of the people that got his start in organizing and financing Mujahideen in Afghanistan was Osama Bin Laden.

But yes, the Afghanistan war is based on lies, through and through. It comes as no surprise that another one has been added to the list. Anyways, the war continues, although US involvement is increasingly cloaked through subterfuge -- "contractors," "advisors," "trainers," secret programs and the like.

When the US withdraws, the Taliban is going to re-take power, and everyone knows it.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 8:36 AM on July 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


This is a great piece! I have one very minor quibble, which is the bit about the "mud house"; the tone of it makes it sound like that's some kind of inferior building material but it looks to me like plenty of adobe buildings I've seen in New Mexico. It's a perfectly legitimate thing to build a school out of!

But that's a small thing in what is a fine piece of investigative journalism. I know every time something like this comes out from BuzzFeed we get all the "lol they make listicles too" comments, but they do some really good pieces like this every once in a while.
posted by NoraReed at 8:38 AM on July 9, 2015


Actually, 9/11 happened when I was a senior in high school.

Some weeks later, I remember going up to the offices of some midtown law firm for my Harvard College interview, and, for some reason, I found myself telling the lawyer I met about the political discussion then ongoing on PYNCHON-L, the Thomas Pynchon discussion mailing list (I was a terrible interview).

I opined that the discussion there was so far to the Left as to be incomprehensible. Everyone decried the Afghan war as a transparent act of imperialism. No one even considered the other side: how bad Bin Laden was, how bad the Taliban was, how a new US-backed regime might improve things.

My interviewer explained that, in the law firm offices, the furthest-left opinion represented was "game theory." They hit us, hard. We have to hit back -- hard -- or we don't have any credibility. (We have to show we will play the non-subgame-perfect strategy. ...) Punishing 9/11s is the way to avoid future 9/11s. I'm not sure about the logic of this argument. Punishing Bin Laden made sense, of course. But does that justify invading Afghanistan and toppling its government? The best you can say is, they sheltered Bin Laden and his organization, presumably knowing they had committed terror against the United States. Governments need to fear sheltering organizations that plan terror against the United States. Is this argument right? I don't know, maybe.

But any rationale for war needs to be lined up against the cost, here excess deaths probably in the 6 figures and a country still submerged in anarchy. And these Potemkin schools are not very encouraging.

Ironically, the best case against overthrowing governments is one I think of as a conservative one, a version of Chesterton's fence. Functioning institutions of government do not come easy, do not arise by spontaneous generation. A randomly chosen social arrangement is going to be worse than a bad government, and by injecting millions of pounds of explosives into a country, you thoroughly randomize their social arrangements.

Sure, the Taliban is a bad government. But it's a government -- it provides stability and services to a nation that needs them. (Well, it does a bit. Afghan geography and history are an obstacle.) And it exists for a reason -- it's the regime that won the contest to become the government. Not a democratic contest, necessarily, but a contest. It's adapted to its circumstances. And if you knock it over, you will get anarchy -- people insecure in their homes, clashes between rival factions, the suspension of services. Many people will die who didn't have to die. And whatever new regime eventually emerges from this anarchy is likely to resemble the old one.

We ignored this lesson in Afghanistan, we ignored it in Iraq. Since then we've ignored it in Libya.

When it comes to foreign governments, don't break what works -- even if it works badly. Because what comes next will likely be worse.
posted by grobstein at 8:47 AM on July 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


"BuzzFeed News exclusively acquired the GPS coordinates and contractor information for every school that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) claims to have refurbished or built since 2002, as well as Department of Defense records of school constructions funded by the U.S. military.

BuzzFeed News spot-checked more than 50 American-funded schools across seven Afghan provinces...At least a tenth of the schools BuzzFeed News visited either no longer exist, are not operating, or were never built in the first place."

That is an incredible approach. Why would USAID expect anyone to check up on them by literally visiting GPS coordinates? It isn't like anyone is going to actually GO there and look at things, right? Here are the coordinates, sure. Amazing.

And the people who would rather read listicles probably won't slog through a long-form investigative piece anyway.

I realize that this is a thing, but is this approach really necessary?

I am a grown lady, and I very much enjoy BF's listicles and stupid quizzes and pictures of dog butts. I am also interested in long form journalism, as are many other BF readers, as is evidenced by the fact that BF considers it a wise investment to publish long form journalism. The majority of people I know who send me BF links have advanced degrees, for crying out loud.

People can enjoy internet froth and hard-hitting reportage, hence: Buzzfeed's entire business model. People who like dog butts contain multitudes.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:48 AM on July 9, 2015 [24 favorites]


I worked in the reconstruction program in Iraq in the middle part of that effort, and one of my bosses said (exasperatedly), "Don't tell me we're building schools. No one builds a school. We're building buildings that we hope will be schools. Who's going to pay the teachers, buy the books, and make sure kids can come without being shot?"

I had NO ONE BUILDS A SCHOOL posted above every desk in my section after that.
posted by Etrigan at 8:50 AM on July 9, 2015 [49 favorites]


It totally reminds me of Stalinism and Maoism - fudge the numbers to make it look like you're performing, tout the results, even though the reality doesn't match the truth. All because of pressure from the upper level bureaucrats on the lower level to produce the numbers...
posted by symbioid at 8:50 AM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


In re Buzzfeed listicles vs. Buzzfeed news -- y'all do realize that the prime movers of newspapers have always been comic strips and coupons, right? News has always been a byproduct of entertainment.
posted by Etrigan at 8:52 AM on July 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


Some weeks later, I remember going up to the offices of some midtown law firm for my Harvard College interview

Anyone else know the joke, "How do you know someone went to Harvard?"
posted by leotrotsky at 8:53 AM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


The best you can say is, they sheltered Bin Laden and his organization, presumably knowing they had committed terror against the United States. Governments need to fear sheltering organizations that plan terror against the United States. Is this argument right? I don't know, maybe.

This argument is more right if they're talking about Saudi Arabia instead.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:54 AM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Anyone else know the joke, "How do you know someone went to Harvard?"

Lol, I didn't get in, if that's part of the joke
posted by grobstein at 8:54 AM on July 9, 2015 [11 favorites]


News has always been a byproduct of entertainment.

Except when the public decides to care about the quality of their news, and decides to fund it out of their own pockets, through the government or otherwise. See: KPFA, BBC, etc.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 8:57 AM on July 9, 2015


In re Buzzfeed listicles vs. Buzzfeed news -- y'all do realize that the prime movers of newspapers have always been comic strips and coupons, right? News has always been a byproduct of entertainment.

Maybe this is the point at which that time-tested model is shaking itself out online at last, where serious journalism and dog butts can lie down together like the lion and the lamb.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:00 AM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


My interviewer explained that, in the law firm offices, the furthest-left opinion represented was "game theory." They hit us, hard. We have to hit back -- hard -- or we don't have any credibility. (We have to show we will play the non-subgame-perfect strategy. ...) Punishing 9/11s is the way to avoid future 9/11s. I'm not sure about the logic of this argument. Punishing Bin Laden made sense, of course. But does that justify invading Afghanistan and toppling its government? The best you can say is, they sheltered Bin Laden and his organization, presumably knowing they had committed terror against the United States. Governments need to fear sheltering organizations that plan terror against the United States. Is this argument right? I don't know, maybe.

How would this kind of game theory account for the less-easy-to-name costs of "punishing"? E.g, people displaced, angry, ready to take any steps against the US that are available to them? How does this game theory account for the cost in American lives when we go to war - actual combat deaths, suicides, illnesses, murders by mentally ill returned soldiers, etc? It seems like you get an awful lot of "additional 9/11s" if you add up all the costs of going to war.
posted by Frowner at 9:00 AM on July 9, 2015


How would this kind of game theory account for the less-easy-to-name costs of "punishing"? E.g, people displaced, angry, ready to take any steps against the US that are available to them? How does this game theory account for the cost in American lives when we go to war - actual combat deaths, suicides, illnesses, murders by mentally ill returned soldiers, etc? It seems like you get an awful lot of "additional 9/11s" if you add up all the costs of going to war.

Let me first remind you that I am reciting an argument as recalled from a terrifying interview 14 years ago, which I have actually never repeated in the intervening time. So I may not be presenting the best version of it. And, above all, I am not endorsing it -- it's not my position.

With that said, my interviewer could respond, how many terror attacks against the US have been prevented? Since 9/11, only a couple dozen(?) Americans have been killed by Islamic terror in the US. If going easy on Afghanistan would have led to a couple 9/11-sized attacks, that represents a huge savings.

US combat deaths in Afghanistan since 9/11 number perhaps 3,500 (military and civilian) -- on par with the 9/11 death toll. One could argue that this is a small price to pay if it prevented a couple 9/11-scale attacks. Furthermore, a large majority of these deaths happened after 2006 -- well after the main war effort that my game theorist-interviewer was defending.

Interpreting her with maximum charity, my interviewer's game theory war could have been achieved with US casualties on the order of a couple hundred. Indeed, in Fall 2001, it may have looked like this was what we were doing. It's not the punishment part that has been so devastating to our blood and treasure, it's been the sticking around afterwards, trying to re-constitute Humpty Dumpty.
posted by grobstein at 9:17 AM on July 9, 2015


'The less-easy-to-name costs of "punishing"' include, at very least, the tens of thousands of Afghanis killed or injured as a result of the war, who deserve to be counted alongside the Americans.
posted by frimble at 9:27 AM on July 9, 2015


But how on earth would one be sure that "going easy on Afghanistan" would lead to more 9/11s? Not that you are required to answer this; I just find it such a stupid and self-interested argument.

1. What historical argument can be made on either side?
2. How difficult was it to have a 9/11? (And the answer, which was obvious at the time, was "very" - if it were easy to round up people and material for large scale suicidal attacks, they would be happening all the time; what we saw instead was a handful of "the CIA prevented a small-scale attack that was also kind of entrapment".)
3. What are the [incredibly predictable] consequences of war in Afghanistan?

I mean, I seriously had conversations with perfectly ordinary people in 2001-2002 where they were all "this is going to spiral out of control, we won't rebuild Iraq effectively, Afghanistan will stay a mess and we'll make lots of enemies". You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to know where this is heading, and this is what routinely makes me distrust all these "experts" who make lots of money and have lots of power.
posted by Frowner at 9:28 AM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Clinton tried the "easy" war in 1998, sending a few dozen cruise missiles to blow up some tents and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan which turned out not to be bin Laden's chemical factory, and sanctions.

And obviously some Pakistani officials weren't deterred enough by our rage-wars to prevent them from harboring bin Laden in Pakistan. Game theory only works if you have rational actors acting transparently.

What probably worked best is tracking down and cutting off sources of financing by rich Gulf states which we had shied away from in the previous years.

This "game theory" nonsense is code for "I'm liberal, and would have also invaded Afghanistan, but I would have totally won."
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:49 AM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


NoraReed, I came to say exactly that same thing. It was only brought up a few times, and yet it was so insulting that it was incredibly distracting. Look at their mud school, look at how appalling it is that they build out of mud! Look how uncivilized! Look how stark these photos look! I mean, if you're building in a desert, mud is a perfectly sensible building material to be using, seeing as you don't exactly have access to huge quantities of cheap lumber, and it does a great job at insulating. No building in a desert is going to look squeaky-clean all year round and if those schools had nice verdant landscaping around them then that would have been a shocking waste of resources.

Dwelling on the mud thing felt uncomfortably like it was being written with less concern than I would have liked for what the locals actually have a problem with, versus what would be shocking to urban-dwelling Americans. Like, the roof would leak in any American school, too, if nobody ever came up with any funding for roof repairs... and I've definitely seen US schools with peeling paint and scarred desks. Education is not something that can be purchased for a one-time expense, but if we can't get the American population to buy into funding our own schools particularly well, getting people to agree to ongoing support of schools a world away seems like a depressingly unlikely proposition.
posted by Sequence at 9:53 AM on July 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


Re Buzzfeed listicles vs. Buzzfeed news -- y'all do realize that the prime movers of newspapers have always been comic strips and coupons, right? News has always been a byproduct of entertainment

Ehh. Comics don't generate revenue. Classified ads are what largely support(ed) newspapers along with regular old advertising. The news is the entertainment. As with TV, the advertising supports entertainment and not the other way around.
posted by aydeejones at 9:57 AM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Game Theory is what a Devil's Advocate does for fun.
posted by srboisvert at 9:58 AM on July 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


To speak to the "news is entertainment" bit further we all know this to be the case with cable news and the slow evolution from "editorial shows" becoming "hard news." But the reality is that long form journalism is also entertainment. It appeals to a smaller base but it's largely entertainment for smart people and people who want to feel smart for reading it. The actual function of journalism to inform the public has been filled with people like Snowden and Greenwald. That's not "news" to me, where "news" means "packaged entertainment about real things" but is the last non-vestigial vestige of journalism IMO
posted by aydeejones at 10:01 AM on July 9, 2015


And long form investigative articles like this also fall into the hardcore "not news, journalism" category for me. This is not news, it's actual reporting
posted by aydeejones at 10:02 AM on July 9, 2015


Now I just need an editor to remove the contradictions. I am tired
posted by aydeejones at 10:03 AM on July 9, 2015


Game theory only works if you have rational actors acting transparently.

I didn't know "game theory" was a pseudo-neo-con(?) phrase/excuse. The actual game theory mathematics will work just fine with irrational "players" and was intrinsically developed to handle non-transparent actions, the canonical example is bluffing, it was the first "math" that analysed lying in a rigorous way.

I deeply doubt any overriding math oriented analysis is used on a global politic policy scale, the matrices needed would be rather larger than used for weather or nuclear simulations, getting sufficient valid data would be worse than weather and the results would be a range of possibilities that would probably be insanely worse than the raw input.

I realize this is rehashing a remembered conversation from a off the cuff discussion years in the past but using "math" as a justification for "we gotta hit back harder" should always trigger the disingenuous flag.
posted by sammyo at 10:17 AM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


I realize this is rehashing a remembered conversation from a off the cuff discussion years in the past but using "math" as a justification for "we gotta hit back harder" should always trigger the disingenuous flag.

"Strange game.

The only winning move is not to play."

posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:26 AM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


it's not clear why this casus belli -- refusal to extradite, basically -- calls for a major ground invasion and deposing the sitting government, but that's what we decided to do.

I assume WWI nostalgia.
posted by corb at 10:34 AM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


I didn't know "game theory" was a pseudo-neo-con(?) phrase/excuse. The actual game theory mathematics will work just fine with irrational "players" and was intrinsically developed to handle non-transparent actions, the canonical example is bluffing, it was the first "math" that analysed lying in a rigorous way.

I deeply doubt any overriding math oriented analysis is used on a global politic policy scale, the matrices needed would be rather larger than used for weather or nuclear simulations, getting sufficient valid data would be worse than weather and the results would be a range of possibilities that would probably be insanely worse than the raw input.

I realize this is rehashing a remembered conversation from a off the cuff discussion years in the past but using "math" as a justification for "we gotta hit back harder" should always trigger the disingenuous flag.


This is all more or less fair, but the history of game theory is in fact deeply intertwined with geopolitics. A lot of seminal game theory research was done at RAND in the '50s, explicitly geared towards modeling Cold War strategy. The RAND "notable participants" on Wikipedia contains a "who's who" of the founders of mathematical choice theories: Arrow (social choice), Aumann (game theory), Ellsberg (decision theory), Markowitz (portfolio theory), Nash (game theory), Von Neumann (game theory, decision theory), Schelling (game theory), Simon (decision theory); someone more knowledgeable could probably list more. (Another fun game is to pick out everyone who won a Nobel Prize. Or a Turing Award. Or a Fields Medal. Or more than one of those. And I have not attempted to list all of the contributions made by the people I've listed, duh, only the connections to choice theories.)

Game theory does rely on assumptions of rationality, but those assumptions can be varied in strength depending on modeling needs. People toss around "irrational" very easily when talking about foreign leaders, but seemingly irrational decisions can often be rationalized by making very limited departures from the strongest assumptions of rationality.

For example, Cold War game theorists realized very early on that nuclear retaliation is not "rational" -- in technical terms, it doesn't satisfy the requirement of subgame perfection. If the other side has launched an all-out nuclear attack, I gain nothing by retaliating in kind -- I'm just as dead either way. This led theorists to reason that players might reap advantage by departing from subgame perfection, if they could convince their opponents that they would do this. This reasoning quickly filtered out of the think tanks and came to influence US policy at the highest levels. (MacNamara and Kissinger both worked at RAND.) By acting "irrational" -- signaling that it would vindictively use nuclear weapons even when there was no material advantage -- the US could deter nuclear attacks get its way in bargaining scenarios.

This line of reasoning is parodied (but also explained rather well) in the classic Kubrick film, Dr. Strangelove. In the film, the Soviets are revealed to have constructed a Doomsday Machine, a device that will automatically retaliate with all weapons if a nuclear strike against the USSR is detected. In game theory, this response to the subgame perfection dilemma is called "precommitment" -- the Soviets precommit to a response strategy that would be "irrational" at the margin. Ironically, this machine was a secret -- never revealed to the strategic opponents whose decision-making it was supposed to influence. Double-ironically, recent leaks indicate that the Soviets really did have a dead-hand nuclear Doomsday Machine, which they really did keep secret from the United States.

So game theory grew up with US foreign policy, and the applications are real. But that doesn't mean any particular folk-game-theory argument is a good one.
posted by grobstein at 11:02 AM on July 9, 2015 [10 favorites]


NoraReed, I came to say exactly that same thing... Dwelling on the mud thing felt uncomfortably like it was being written with less concern than I would have liked for what the locals actually have a problem with, versus what would be shocking to urban-dwelling Americans.

One, the point of the article is that the money's being poured down a black hole and funds which are supposed to provide for materials even better than the region's mud huts are ending up in pockets.

Two, the author's the child of someone who emigrated from a nearby region, speaks the language, and likely has better understanding of and communion with the communities that she's writing about than you do.

She's trying to draw attention to the difference between what was promised; you're trying to demonstrate how culturally sensitive you are. She's not saying "ick, mud huts," and I find it offensive that you need to even slightly malign the author in order to pat your own backs.
posted by Mayor Peace Love and Unity at 11:15 AM on July 9, 2015 [6 favorites]


grobstein,
I like the cut of your jib (at least in talking about Game Theory).
I have been "studying" Game Theory for a very long time, mostly because of the applications used by a lot of talking heads and also it's prominence in being flouted as the tool of choice by policy makers. I recently was lent one of the seminal texts on it by a friend who is a stats guy, and we have been talking about math a lot.

My biggest "hey, I was right" was right in the intro to the book. Game Theory is great as a tool for making semi-educated probabilistic decision trees to outline options for action. It is not a tool for making actual decisions, especially in real world applications. Great policy tool, but not a one-size-fits-all means of determining realistic results.

The main problem I see is how many people will "run the numbers" through a chosen theory, and then try and play out that scenario based on that single result. The "actual" intent was to run the number after EVERY action, because each action will change the "game", either revealing new information, which has to be accounted for, or eliminate possible branches. And, of course, because people are lazy, they never follow up with the follow-up iterations. This frustrates me to no end. It also apparently frustrated the author of the book I am currently slogging through (high level math is hard if you have no training).

As this relates to the actual FPP:
I think the article illustrates exactly what I am describing. The policy was to build "schools", and that policy was set and followed as writ. No body bothered to put into the policy any re-evaluation, re-assessment, alternative actions, secondary or tertiary checks. They simple assumed that simply building the schools and leaving was all there was to it.

And, of course, the worst part of this comes from, as I see it, a very particular mind set. I know people often say that the government is bad at things, etc, etc. But this is not where this failure comes from. This comes from the management model being used, not the fact that the government was the ones doing the work (and, in fact, to a greater degree, they were not the ones doing the work, it was contractors or military personnel, which if you know anything about how the military works means that they did everything they were told to do and not one whit more). I could probably come up with a pretty accurate model of the kinds of committees that were involved, and how their actions and thinking was so far detached from the actual reality of the situation and the actual variables involved, that they did not even consider that simply building a school (or, as Etrigan puts it "NO ONE BUILDS A SCHOOL") is not even 1% of the work required. And, of course, because there is no money it is (or more precisely, because it costs money) no one wants to do the actual work involved, like creating relationships with the community, providing other infrastructure, providing security, providing teachers and books and materials and actual coordination and integration with the people who are there.

Instead we end up with "hey, we built you a school, what you do with it is your own fault". And that is going to be the talking point from the talking heads. "We spent all this money building schools, and the people we built the schools for are so backwards or stupid or whatever that they failed to use it the way we think they should."

What good is a book to someone who cannot read?

"How to you make an apple pie? First you must create the universe."
posted by daq at 1:13 PM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Maybe stating the obvious here, but prefixing a purely political opinion with the phrase "According to Game Theory" is a really easy way to make yourself look smart and make that opinion look unassailable. Compare:

"I think we should retaliate immediately to discourage future attacks."
(Well, that's just your OPINION, man.)

"According to game theory analysis, we need to respond with force immediately to discourage future attacks."
(Well gosh, I don't know anything about 'game theory analysis' but it sounds legit, and it isn't even this guy's opinion that we should attack, it's the answer to an equation or something, so how can it be wrong?)
posted by LastOfHisKind at 1:40 PM on July 9, 2015


(Well gosh, I don't know anything about 'game theory analysis' but it sounds legit, and it isn't even this guy's opinion that we should attack, it's the answer to an equation or something, so how can it be wrong?)

[sobchak] Game theory? Fuck me. Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos. [/sobchak]
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 4:06 PM on July 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


Maybe stating the obvious here, but prefixing a purely political opinion with the phrase "According to Game Theory" is a really easy way to make yourself look smart and make that opinion look unassailable. Compare:

"I think we should retaliate immediately to discourage future attacks."
(Well, that's just your OPINION, man.)

"According to game theory analysis, we need to respond with force immediately to discourage future attacks."
(Well gosh, I don't know anything about 'game theory analysis' but it sounds legit, and it isn't even this guy's opinion that we should attack, it's the answer to an equation or something, so how can it be wrong?)


Yeah, I'm really not trying to be a defender of off-brand realpolitik here, and I've insisted from the beginning on critiquing the "game theory" argument I recited.

But, like, it's not really been so "unassailable," right? I assailed it when I introduced it, and almost every subsequent comment has assailed it, too. I don't think using the words "game theory" really has that kind of effect. I included the language because it's one of the very few details I recall from that conversation, 14 years ago -- not to set it apart as a presumptively good scientific argument.

Now, let me grant that you don't need to be a game theorist to make an argument like, "We need to punish them so no one else does this." Humans have been making this kind of argument probably as long as they've been around -- long before there was any body of knowledge called "game theory." But there was game theory before there was the formal study of game theory. You can find eons-old bacteria playing strategies named after 20th century theorists. Humans are particularly adept game theorists. It's a deep part of our heritage. Many researchers think game theory is the reason our brains are so big -- see the "social intelligence hypothesis."

So, with this rich heritage, of course we were making game theory arguments long before they were called that. The generals and traders and dowagers of our ancestry all practiced folk game theory.

Now, maybe the spirit of your comment is: folk game theory reasoning was good enough for Machiavelli and Jane Austen. What value is there to bringing in formal game theory to discuss fuzzy real-world problems -- except to snow our audience with false scientific rigor?

I guess I am a little less skeptical of "scientific" language. I find the tools of formal game theory useful in many contexts and applications, even if just as metaphors, or descriptions for classes of real-world phenomena. I don't want to snow anyone with them, and I don't think anyone is going to snow me.

And of course game theory continues to be extremely useful in economics, biology, and ethics. It's a tool for understanding the (real) world, and it would be a waste if it had to be left out when real-world topics were on the table.
posted by grobstein at 4:47 PM on July 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


A pretense of game theory here is simply cosmetic cover for the policy Ledeen spelled out: "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."
posted by fredludd at 4:50 PM on July 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I'm really not trying to be a defender of off-brand realpolitik here, and I've insisted from the beginning on critiquing the "game theory" argument I recited.

My apologies if I came across as antagonistic towards game theory. I honestly do believe that it's a useful tool and worthy of study. That said, I do think it's easy to dress up a weak argument, even if you know practically nothing about game theory, just by invoking the name.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 5:02 PM on July 9, 2015


Yeah, you are right about that.
posted by grobstein at 5:34 PM on July 9, 2015


A pretense of game theory here is simply cosmetic cover for the policy Ledeen spelled out: "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."

That was Iraq, which would have happened regardless of 9/11.
posted by Etrigan at 5:42 PM on July 9, 2015


grobstein,
I like the cut of your jib (at least in talking about Game Theory).
I have been "studying" Game Theory for a very long time, mostly because of the applications used by a lot of talking heads and also it's prominence in being flouted as the tool of choice by policy makers. I recently was lent one of the seminal texts on it by a friend who is a stats guy, and we have been talking about math a lot.

My biggest "hey, I was right" was right in the intro to the book. Game Theory is great as a tool for making semi-educated probabilistic decision trees to outline options for action. It is not a tool for making actual decisions, especially in real world applications. Great policy tool, but not a one-size-fits-all means of determining realistic results.

The main problem I see is how many people will "run the numbers" through a chosen theory, and then try and play out that scenario based on that single result. The "actual" intent was to run the number after EVERY action, because each action will change the "game", either revealing new information, which has to be accounted for, or eliminate possible branches. And, of course, because people are lazy, they never follow up with the follow-up iterations. This frustrates me to no end. It also apparently frustrated the author of the book I am currently slogging through (high level math is hard if you have no training).


Hi daq! Sorry to leave you hanging. I hope you're having a blast with that book. Game theory is a beautiful subject. I recently enjoyed Signals, by Brian Skyrms, which is a survey of a variety of signaling models with a focus on evolutionary analysis. Not a hard book, but a nice and up-to-date introduction to a wide range of subject matter.

In terms of game theory applications, well, any model is only as good as its assumptions, just as any argument is only as good as its premises. In contrast to, like, big regression models, the game theory models people talk about tend to be simple. Oh, there's two agents, and there's some equilibrium you can find analytically, and this model scenario resembles the given real world scenario. Like, "That's just a Prisoner's Dilemma." On the one hand, the conclusions are very sensitive to the assumptions. On the other hand, the simplicity makes it easy to see how the conclusions are sensitive to the assumptions.

It's much easier to evaluate an argument like that than to evaluate one based on some kind of psychology lab experiments, macroeconomic models, or observational public health studies. When it comes to Science! arguments in public policy, game theory arguments at least are relatively transparent. "Studies show x" is much more likely to engender uncritical responses, because most of us are not equipped to be critical about it.

Speculatively, I think this relates back to our ecological heritage. We are good intuitive game theorists. We are not good intuitive statisticians!
posted by grobstein at 10:53 AM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


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