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Thinking the unthinkable, predicting the unpredictable

Posted By Barry Ritholtz On September 22, 2005 @ 8:22 am In Economy,Politics,Science,War/Defense,Web/Tech | Comments Disabled

The spin these days is that all of these disasters — 9/11, Iraq Insurgency, New Orleans flood — were both unthinkable and unpredictable.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

These were all thought of and predicted — way in advance. I can name at least a dozen private (and public) sector firms that spend all of their waking hours dreaming up stuff like this. Not only was all this foreseeable, but its the subject of deep and regular analyses by some very, very bright people.

Indeed, from the office of strategic planning in the Pentagon, to risk management officers in Re-insurance companies to capital preservation specialists at Futures trading firms to doctors who specialize in pandemics at the NIH, all sorts of these "what-could-go-wrong" analyses occurs everyday. Even Wal-Mart plans distribution and routing strategies around all kinds of planned and sudden unplanned weather interruptions (see our earlier discussion [1]). 

On Wall Street, bigger funds consider the "What-if" scenarios all the time.  I have participated in stress-testing asset pools with funds running 100s of billions of dollars:  What happens if a Nuke goes off in DC, if China invades Taiwan, if various heads of different States are assassinated (including the US President and/or VP), if the Royal House of Saud falls. Nukes are fun, cause there are so many scenarios — in addition to the dirty bomb problems, there’s what if N. Korea accidentally blows up a weapon, if Israel nukes Iran, if Russia admits 5 bombs are unaccounted for. Then there’s the accidental US silo disaster, including various alternative misinterpretations (i.e., accident, terrorist, Russian or Chinese espionage, etc.)

All of this is called strategic planning. Up until recently, it was something that was not only carried out by the private sector and the military, but also at he highest levels of US government. Lately, it seems to have become a lost art.

My personal theory for a lot of what has gone wrong over the past few years is that ideology (i.e., Neo-Con) and faith-based belief systems (insert your choice here) have replaced elbow grease, deep thought, and long term strategizing as the methodology of implementing policy.

Its apparent in the anti-intellectual bend of much of the White House. Is it a surprise that pseudo-science is challenging Science? Not if you have been paying any attention.

The bottom line is that this distasteful, difficult stuff — planning, strategizing, executing –  matters. It matters to the nation, its population and ultimately, to their safety from all manners of ordinary, natural and extra-ordinary man-made disasters.

This is one of the few times I get to admonish the public and exhort members of both political parties with words such as these:   

Figure it out — or die.

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[1] earlier discussion: http://bigpicture.typepad.com/comments/2005/09/compare_contras.html

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