April 17, 2006

Did Malcolm Gladwell's bestseller The Tipping Point help get us into Iraq?

Novelist Walter Kirn writes:

For Iraq, I blame the managers, of course, but I also blame their reading lists. More than once, while predicting victory, Donald Rumsfeld has used the magic words "Tipping Point." This new pop formula for achieving vast results from relatively limited efforts has turned out to be one disastrous abracadabra. Saddam goes, they all go. We don't need a huge army. Iraq is ready for democracy -- just give it a strategic nudge. The entire Middle East will follow.

Behind every failed war is a failed metaphor (remember The Domino Effect, the Vietnam-era version of The Tipping Point?) that mesmerized its masters into waging it, kept them waging it once they started losing it, and immobilized them with disbelief when it turned back into intellectual smoke. From business-section bestseller to Pentagon battle-plan. Only in America. And it was a phony, decrepit notion to start with, despite being updated for today's executives and cleverly remarketed to every no one who ever dreamed of being a someone by working at home, in his or her spare time. The idea that one straw can break the camel's back, that one well-placed lever can move the world, that one added particle can bring on "critical mass" is the delusion that wears a thousand faces. It's the manic creed of the assassin: fire a single bullet, alter history. The principle rarely works when applied on purpose, but because it quite often works by accident (or seems to have worked, when viewed in retrospect; Henry Ford built his Model T and, presto, freeways!) it never loses its appeal.

What's next? The Freakonomics war? The Six-Sigma attack against Iran? The Blink campaign against global terrorism? Capturing Osama the Warren Buffett Way?

Despite getting an MBA and spending 18 years in corporate America, I seldom could read more than the first chapter of any business bestseller. Most good new management ideas can be described in a magazine article. An entire book will turn out to be either egregiously padded out, or too complicated to implement.

Gladwell, however, has perfected a new technique in which he makes millions by offering content-free advice to business people. In Gladwell's world, all they have to do to get rich is to make the right decision. Blink, for example, tells us to go with our gut reactions -- but only when they are correct! When your instantaneous feelings turn out to have been wrong, well, then you should have used a complex, formal analysis process.

You may be wondering what this "tipping point" is. Well, you see, and follow me closely here, Gladwell's theory is that rising trends, such as crime rates or sneaker sales, tend to go up until they reach a "tipping point," and then they go down. Or vice-versa. Or sometimes they reach a tipping point and then they go up even faster. Or down even faster. But you can be quite confident that, sooner or later, something or other will happen.

In truth, the Domino Theory proved moderately accurate -- when South Vietnam collapsed, so did the anti-Communist regimes in Cambodia and Laos. Then followed a half decade of Soviet successes in the Third World around the world. You can think of it as the Bandwagon Effect. People like a winner and so they tend to go with the flow of whoever seems to be winning.

The flaw in the Domino Theory turned out to be that the Third World just wasn't very strategically important. The subsequent Communist triumphs in Cambodia, Laos, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan turned out to be bad for the inhabitants of those countries, but basically a big waste of time and energy for the Kremlin. Probably the only thing that could have saved the Soviet Union was a massive armored push south to capture the oil fields of the Persian Gulf.

Meanwhile, capitalism was proving its superiority over communism in places that do matter, like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong with beneficial reverberations around the world.

The real example of the Domino Theory in action was Eastern Europe in 1989-1991. The problem with applying that analogy to the Middle East is that Eastern European nations had one big problem -- they were tyrannically ruled by the Soviet Communist party. In contrast, Middle Eastern nations have no end of problems.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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