Missing Links

Mixed Metaphors

Why the wars on cancer, poverty, drugs, terror, drunk driving, teen pregnancy, and other ills can't be won.

What's worse: declaring war against a social problem or calling for a Marshall Plan to solve it? Both are enduring and popular metaphors. Unfortunately, both lead to bad government decisions. Public policies shaped by such thinking more often than not result in waste, blind spots, and Manichaean mindsets that limit the search for more effective approaches. Think of the long-running wars on drugs, terrorism, and cancer. The results, all too predictably, have been more confusing than the problems.

In fact, no imitation of the Marshall Plan has ever worked, and no war on a big social problem has ever ended in defeat for the enemy (save, perhaps, cigarettes). But the allure of these spurious comparisons remains as strong as ever. Without any apparent effect, Marshall Plans have been proposed to help Africa, the Middle East, New Orleans, Iraq, and even Wallonia, Belgium's least prosperous region. Bill Gates wants a Marshall Plan to broaden access to technology, French President Nicolas Sarkozy urges one for his country's poor suburbs, and the AFL-CIO thinks the U.S. auto industry deserves its own Marshall Plan.

Advocates of war against big problems are just as plentiful. We have been asked to go to war against poverty, drunk driving, email spam, and teen pregnancy, just to name a few. In the United States, liberals denounce the Bush-era "war on science" while conservatives each year mobilize against the "war on Christmas." And of course, there's the favorite war of the global chattering class -- the war against global warming. "This is World War III," Barbara Young, then head of Britain's Environment Agency, declared in 2007. "This is the biggest challenge to face the globe for many, many years. We need the sorts of concerted, fast, integrated, and above all huge efforts that went into many actions in times of war."

There are many good reasons why declaring war on a social problem or launching a Marshall Plan to help a country or region are such attractive metaphors for politicians. Wars unite countries and stifle internal dissent. Wag the Dog is not just the title of a movie in which a war is manufactured to rally support for a government, but also an age-old political tactic. The war metaphor is also attractive because real wars -- those between nation-states as opposed to those against concepts or bad socioeconomic trends -- are finite. University of Notre Dame scholar Daniel Lindley has found that the average length of a war is 308 days when the country that starts it wins and 660 days when initiators lose. No surprise, then, that the war metaphor keeps getting deployed: It boosts expectations that in a few years a major scourge -- cancer, terrorism, poverty -- will be eliminated. "War" also holds the seductive promise of an open checkbook for the politicians who so liberally apply the term; after all, budgetary constraints tend to disappear during war along with all those pesky rules. Wars are for heroes, not for accountants who limit the resources needed for victory.

The Marshall Plan metaphor has been similarly irresistible, with its implications of massive funding and unquestioning public support. But the original Marshall Plan launched by the United States to help Europe after World War II was neither as financially sizable nor as uncontroversial as proponents commonly assume. (Economist Tyler Cowen estimated U.S. aid, which peaked at around $90 billion in today's dollars, was no more than 5 percent of the gross national product of the recipient nations.) Still, the plan has come to epitomize a bold, massive -- and successful -- governmental mobilization.

Alas, these good metaphors yield bad policies. The war on drugs, for example, has been more successful in spawning immense bureaucracies and winning big budgets and partisan political fights than in ending drug use. Decriminalizing marijuana for medical purposes is becoming a popular reform in the United States, and 14 states have already adopted it, with more sure to follow. But do we know if marijuana does indeed have the medical benefits claimed by reformers? No. As a result of the mindset -- and the policies -- nurtured by the war on drugs, medical researchers have been blocked from access to marijuana and unable to scientifically test the claims. Only now, after four painful and futile decades, is the war on drugs losing support.

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The same perils apply to the "war on terror." As former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski famously noted: "The damage these three words have done -- a classic self-inflicted wound -- is infinitely greater than any wild dreams entertained by the fanatical perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks when they were plotting against us in distant Afghan caves. The phrase itself is meaningless. It defines neither a geographic context nor our presumed enemies. Terrorism is not an enemy but a technique of warfare." Indeed, the war on terror was even more spectacularly successful than the war on drugs in securing political, legal, military, and financial blank checks for those waging it. But that, too, is changing as anti-terrorism efforts are now more carefully scrutinized, checks are written with more strings attached, and alternative approaches are tested. Recognizing that language is power, U.S. President Barack Obama took a key first step in banning the bad metaphor. At his insistence, the Pentagon was forced to lose its precious GWOT (global war on terror) acronym and the GWOT mentality that went with it. But as many of his predecessors learned, Obama is finding that wars are hard to exit. Once a war against poverty, crime, or terrorism is launched, announcing a unilateral truce is usually political suicide. Instead, presidents get boxed into absolutist policies in which compromise is impossible and victory is the only acceptable outcome.

But no matter the complications, these wars aren't going away -- they're just too politically convenient. It took only a few hours after Haiti's terrible Jan. 12 earthquake for pundits to call for a Marshall Plan. One thing by now is certain, however: Although aid will materialize, a Marshall Plan will not. As we all know but the metaphor users routinely and conveniently ignore, the Marshall Plan's success was driven by the hard-to-replicate conditions in Europe after World War II, with its highly educated populations, well-developed private sector, and relatively efficient public bureaucracies.

So: Beware the metaphor. All these wars and Marshall Plans are getting the world nowhere. But their frequent use does have a silver lining: At least you'll know that whenever they are proposed, bad policies will soon follow.

Missing Links

It Didn't Happen

The dollar didn't crash. Tariffs didn't come roaring back. The world's growing economies didn't grind to a halt. And other scary tales that failed to come true during the crisis.

Just a few months ago, the consensus among influential thinkers was that the economic crisis would unleash a wave of geopolitical plagues. Xenophobic outbursts, civil wars, collapsing currencies, protectionism, international conflicts, and street riots were only some of the dire consequences expected by the experts.

It didn't happen. Although the crash did cause severe economic damage and widespread human suffering, and though the world did change in important ways for the worse -- the International Monetary Fund, for example, estimates that the global economy's new and permanent trajectory is a 10 percent lower rate of GDP growth than before the crisis -- the scary predictions for the most part failed to materialize.

Sadly, the same experts who failed to foresee the economic crisis were also blindsided by the speed of the recovery. More than a year into the crisis, we now know just how off they were. From telling us about the imminent collapse of the international financial system to prophecies of a 10-year recession, here are six of the most common predictions about the crisis that have been proven wrong:

The international financial system will collapse. It didn't. As Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac crashed, as Citigroup and many other pillars of the financial system teetered on the brink, and as stock markets everywhere entered into free fall, the wise men predicted a total system meltdown. The economy has "fallen off a cliff," warned investment guru Warren Buffett. Fellow financial wizard George Soros agreed, noting the world economy was on "life support," calling the turbulence more severe than during the Great Depression, and comparing the situation to the demise of the Soviet Union.

The natural corollary of such doomsday scenarios was the possibility that depositors would lose access to the funds in their bank accounts. From there to visions of martial law imposed to control street protests and the looting of bank offices was just an easy step for thousands of Internet-fueled conspiracy theorists. Even today, the financial system is still frail, banks are still failing, credit is scarce, and risks abound. But the financial system is working, and the perception that it is too unsafe to use or that it can suddenly crash out of existence has largely dissipated.

The economic crisis will last for at least two years and maybe even a decade. It didn't. By fall of 2009, the economies of the United States, Europe, and Japan had begun to grow again, and many of the largest developing economies, such as China, India, and Brazil, were growing at an even faster pace. This was surely a far cry from the doom-laden -- and widely echoed -- prophecies of economist Nouriel Roubini. In late 2008 he warned that radical governmental actions at best would prevent "what will now be an ugly and nasty two-year recession and financial crisis from turning into a systemic meltdown and a decade-long economic depression." Roubini was far from the only pessimist. "The danger," warned Harvard University's Kenneth Rogoff, another distinguished economist, in the fall of 2008, "is that instead of having a few bad years, we'll have another lost decade." It turned out that radical policy reactions were far more effective than anyone had expected in shortening the life of the recession.

The U.S. dollar will crash. It didn't. Instead, the American currency's value increased 20 percent between July 2008 and March 2009, at the height of the crisis. At first, investors from around the world sought refuge in the U.S. dollar. Then, as the U.S. government bailed out troubled companies and stimulated the economy with aggressive public spending, the U.S. fiscal deficit skyrocketed and anxieties about a dollar devaluation mounted. By the second half of 2009, the U.S. currency had lost value. But devaluation has not turned out to be the catastrophic crash predicted by the pessimists. Rather, as Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf noted, "The dollar's correction is not just natural; it is helpful. It will lower the risk of deflation in the U.S. and facilitate the correction of the global 'imbalances' that helped cause the crisis."

Protectionism will surge. It didn't. Trade flows did drop dramatically in late 2008 and early 2009, but they started to grow again in the second half of 2009 as economies recovered. Pascal Lamy, director-general of the World Trade Organization, had warned that the global financial crisis was bound to lead to surges in protectionism as governments sought to blame foreigners for their problems. "That is exactly what happened in the 1930s when [protectionism] was the virus that spread the crisis all over the place," he said in October 2008, echoing a widely held sentiment among trade experts. And it is true that many governments dabbled in protectionism, including not only the U.S. Congress's much-derided "Buy American" provision, but also measures such as increased tariffs or import restrictions imposed in 17 of the G-20 countries. Yet one year later, a report from the European Union concluded that "a widespread and systemic escalation of protectionism has been prevented." The protectionist temptation is always there, and a meaningful increase in trade barriers cannot be ruled out. But it has not happened yet.

The crisis in rich countries will drag down developing ones. It didn't. As the economies of America and Europe screeched to a halt during the nightmarish first quarter of 2009, China's economy accelerated, part of a broader trend in which emerging markets fared better through the crisis than the world's most advanced economies. As the rich countries entered a deep recession and the woes of the U.S. financial market affected banking systems everywhere, the idea that emerging economies could "decouple" from the advanced ones was widely mocked.

But decouple they did. Some emerging economies relied on their domestic markets, others on exports to other growing countries (China, for example, displaced the United States last year as Brazil's top export market). Still others had ample foreign reserves, low exposure to toxic financial assets, or, like Chile, had taken measures in anticipation of an eventual global slowdown. Not all developing countries managed to escape the worst of the crisis -- and many, such as Mexico and Iran, were deeply hurt -- but many others managed to avoid the fate of the advanced economies.

Violent political turmoil will become more common. It didn't. Electorates did punish governments for the economic hard times. But this was mostly in Europe and mostly peaceful and democratic. "There will be blood," prophesied Harvard historian Niall Ferguson last spring. "A crisis of this magnitude is bound to increase political [conflict] ... It is bound to destabilize some countries. It will cause civil wars to break out that have been dormant. It will topple governments that were moderate and bring in governments that are extreme. These things are pretty predictable."

No, it turns out: They aren't.

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