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February 28, 2013

Deterrence: Theoria vs. Praxis in Sequestration

Deterrence in modern usage is the certain use of blunt force to produce an overwhelming, devastating outcome in order to prevent an undesirable activity. Deterrence theory was the basis of the Cold War's Mutually Assured Destruction policies, and one could argue that it kept us from nuclear war for fifty years. I might suggest that Vasili Arkhipov (in 1962), Stanislav Petrov (in 1983), and others not recognized had more to do with avoiding nuclear war than the game theorists would like to admit.

Deterrence has two main requirements: (1) the key personnel on both sides must be rational actors, and (2) the promised response must be both credible and unacceptable to the opponent.

The self-imposed financial sequestration agreement between the House, the Senate, and the Executive seems a legitimate deterrent on the face of it; it's a blunt-force dumb program, cutting the prime and the waste without discernment or judgment. The conceptual framework was that sequestration would be so painful and odious that nobody would let it happen.

And yet, here they are on the Eve of Sequestration.

An unexpected outcome calls for a review of the initial assumptions, and so we might review the two requirements given above.

  • Could it be that Congress is not an intelligent rational actors? That would certainly explain the present situation.
  • Could it be that the Administration has miscalculated, believing that sequestration was an effective deterrent to the Party of Newt, who shut the government down in 1995? Was the threat acceptable if not desireable to Team Red?

The thing about betting the house on deterrence theory is: if the deterrent doesn't work you're screwed. There's really very little new under the sun (VLNUS), and this tension between theory and practice was all covered by Aristotle and Plotinus. But I suspect that doesn't mean much to a federal employee who just got a furlough notice.

2 comments:

Joe said...

The current mess was unavoidable, once the sequester had been defined. It just doesn't look very bad to the more-ideological Republicans in the House. A real deterrent would have included higher income and capital-gains tax rates.

Wayland Williams said...

Both sides are acting irresposible,to put a partition down the middle of the isle is not what we voted them into office for. They need to stay in Washington till a full budget is in place. If they are not capable get out let some in that can, that goes for both parties

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