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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 24 May 2013

Wanted: PhDs Who Can Win a Bar Fight (Major Fernando M. Luján)

Wanted: PhDs Who Can Win a Bar Fight
Looming budget cuts, ground forces worn down by years of repeated deployments, and a range of ever evolving security challenges from Mali to Libya and Yemen are quickly making "light footprint" military interventions a central part of American strategy. Instead of "nation building" with large, traditional military formations, civilian policymakers are increasingly opting for a discrete combination of air power, special operators, intelligence agents, indigenous armed groups, and contractors, often leveraging relationships with allies and enabling partner militaries to take more active roles.

 Despite the relative appeal of these less costly forms of military intervention, the light footprint is no panacea. Like any policy option, the strategy has risks, costs and benefits that make it ideally suited for certain security challenges and disastrous for others. Moreover, recent media coverage of drone strikes and SEAL raids may also distort public perceptions, creating a bin Laden effect -- the notion of military action as sterile, instantaneous, and pinprick accurate. Yet nighttime raids are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg: the most visible part of a deeper, longer-term strategy that takes many years to develop, cannot be grown after a crisis, and relies heavily on human intelligence networks, the training of local security forces, and close collaboration with diplomats and development workers.  For these smaller-scale interventions to be an effective instrument of national policy, civilian and military leaders at all levels should make a concerted effort to understand not only their strategic uses and limitations, but also the ways the current defense bureaucracy can undermine their success.

The most critical resource requirement in smaller interventions is human capital: talented, adaptable professionals who are not only fluent in language, culture, politics, and interpersonal relationships, but also willing to deploy for long periods and operate with little guidance. Smaller-scale missions mean less redundancy, less room for error, and more responsibility for every person in the field. In the words of Lt. Gen. Charlie Cleveland, the commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command: "To succeed in these missions, we need people who can wade into uncertainty, learn the key players, and figure out the best way to influence outcomes." This means that in the face of looming budget cuts, the Pentagon's biggest national security challenge may not be dealing with a rival power or preserving force structure, but instead solving an intractable human resources problem -- how to retool outdated institutions to select, train, assign, and retain the most talented people to address today's security problems overseas.

Two of my own operational assignments may help illustrate how light-footprint missions can succeed or fail depending on the people who are assigned to accomplish them. I served in the 7th Special Forces Group and the Department of Defense AFPAK Hands program -- organizations with very different missions but built for the same fundamental task of influencing foreign partners and building security capacity with a handful of U.S. personnel. These contrasting vignettes should serve as a vivid example of two different organizational philosophies and the institutional challenges that must be overcome if the United States is to master a smaller, more indirect, lower-profile approach to warfare.

The 7th Special Forces Group

The ethic that defines Special Forces training is probably best described as "select hard, manage easy." Operators enjoy tremendous autonomy in the field, but they must earn it first. Before reporting to an operational unit, every Special Forces officer and soldier is required to undergo a rigorous screening and selection process, followed by a two-year qualification course that includes instruction on infantry tactics, specialized technical skills such as weapons or communications, guerrilla warfare, survival, and foreign language training.

Undertaking these intense experiences just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I was surprised by two things. First, there was a strong connection between our training and real-world Special Forces missions -- operators who had just fought on horseback with the Northern Alliance would return to speak to the class, and their feedback would be immediately incorporated into realistic, immersive exercises. Second, a large portion of the course was focused on the intellectual and social attributes of the students -- creativity, oral and written communication, judgment, cultural respect, and interpersonal skills -- rather than sheer athletic prowess. Peers who aced every physical challenge would suddenly be dropped when the instructors observed them unable to plan a mission alone without further guidance or incapable of building rapport with role players during a cross-cultural scenario. Sensing our confusion after a particularly tough cut sent a dozen students home, one instructor quoted a line from our World War II predecessors, the Office of Strategic Services: "The OSS, when selecting officers to parachute into occupied France, described the ideal candidate as a Ph.D. that can win a bar fight. We don't just want an officer that can carry a hundred-pound rucksack on his back. We need someone who can think and improvise."
Upon graduation, I was assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group, a unit that has long specialized in Latin America. Every Army Special Forces unit is permanently aligned with a region of the world, and as the Spanish-speaking son of Mexican immigrants, I saw 7th Group as the natural choice. From the first day I arrived, I was struck by the sense of continuity and shared culture I encountered; it showed in the soccer posters hanging in the team rooms and the salsa music playing in the hallway. Like me, many of the operators were native or advanced Spanish speakers with families from Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or Panama, and those who were not had gradually improved upon their few months of formal language instruction by working with foreign militaries across the region. This was a unit full of very talented people, focused on conducting tough training and advisory missions. At any given time, 12-man detachments were scattered across a half-dozen countries, from Peru to Bolivia to Chile, or attending privately run tactical schools for off-road driving, mountaineering, or whatever the mission required. Moreover, the teams prized their independence when deployed, and they were accustomed to frequently operating as the only military presence in a country. A longtime unit veteran pulled me aside and explained: "In 7th Group, you can maybe get away with calling back to the United States and asking your boss for guidance once. But do it twice, and you'll be out of a job. Fix problems at your level. You're in charge."

On my first deployment, to conduct a State Department-funded infrastructure security mission in the Colombian jungle, I had the good fortune of being mentored by a senior warrant officer and sergeant major with nearly 35 years of experience and seven or eight trips to Colombia between them. While I was impressed by their ease working with civilian embassy officials and their tactical knowledge in the field, the most valuable lesson they taught me was the power of relationships. I watched these experienced American soldiers walk into high-level meetings to give the Colombian generals a bear hug and immediately start joking about past exploits. They'd known most of the top officers for more than a decade. More importantly, this level of rapport and trust allowed them to have a deeper influence than any first-time adviser with a standard training plan; they could discuss topics that mattered, such as corruption, professionalism, or ethics -- not just tactics and marksmanship. I saw the power of relationships repeated again and again in many countries, even in Iraq, where I served as an adviser to a battalion from El Salvador. In the middle of an Arabic-speaking country, we conducted missions together in Spanish and learned that even though specific personalities had changed, the Salvadorans knew the history of our unit and the names of the U.S. advisers who had been killed, and they felt honored to repay the sacrifices that our 7th Group predecessors made for their homeland more than 30 years ago.

The Pentagon's AFPAK Hands Program

In late 2009, as the military was ramping up for a surge in Afghanistan, the Pentagon announced the creation of the AFPAK Hands program. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen wrote a memo calling it his "number one" manpower priority and asked the services to search for the "best and brightest" candidates. The concept was innovative: A small contingent of several hundred military personnel from all branches of service would be carefully selected, given intensive instruction in Dari, Pashto, or Urdu, and then would spend years rotating between critical assignments in theater and Afghanistan-Pakistan staff positions in Washington or at Central Command. The in-theater jobs would be totally immersive, requiring advisers to embed within Afghan ministries, military units, district centers, and other key places where they could help serve as a cultural bridge and build long-term relationships that could endure after most U.S. troops had withdrawn. According to the concept briefing, the goal was to create a deep bench of knowledgeable, talented regional experts who would add much-needed continuity to the campaign. It was billed as a strategic game changer and basically sought to apply special operations methodologies, as I had seen in 7th Group, to the broader military effort in Afghanistan. I jumped at the chance to participate.

But a few days after reporting to Washington for the initial AFPAK Hands training, it quickly became apparent that something was amiss. First, there was no mechanism to turn unsuitable candidates away, and half of the cohort had not even volunteered for the assignment. As such, the class included far too many students who lacked either the aptitude or desire to participate in the challenging, unstructured advisory missions for which the program was designed. The overarching problem was incentives. I distinctly remember one of the best students -- an exceptionally talented F-16 pilot named Lt. Col. "Bruiser" Bryant, who was later tragically killed in Afghanistan -- explaining the situation during a coffee break: "Some of the most talented people in the Air Force are the fighter pilots. Now, you try asking one of them if he wants to stop flying, learn to speak Pashto, and spend the next three to five years away from his family in a high-risk mission, after which he won't be promoted because he's off his career track? Not many volunteer for that. So sometimes you end up with people that just didn't have any better options." Yet beyond the selection and screening problems, the program did little to prepare even the most qualified volunteers for their future roles. The AFPAK Hands training basically consisted of four months of abbreviated language courses, a few days of PowerPoint presentations, and a week of basic combat skills. There was no practical instruction in the tasks most important to embedded advisers, such as rapport building, negotiation, force protection, or anti-terrorism measures, meaning that those volunteers who came from non-combat occupations or had no previous adviser experience were left with few resources to help prepare.
Rather than "select hard, manage easy," the program had essentially "selected easy," had skipped vital training, and was now left to "manage hard." When the first mixed bag of AFPAK Hands graduates arrived in theater, conditions were set for disappointment all around. Receiving commanders in Afghanistan had been promised a strategic game changer but all too often encountered a mediocre staff officer with a smattering of language skills and no desire or training to embed with Afghan counterparts. Conversely, the best AFPAK Hands, eager to immerse with their counterparts and full of good ideas, were frequently placed into jobs that involved little interaction with Afghans or placed under rules that severely restricted access. This became a vicious cycle, with the program developing a stigma, commanders tightening rules to prevent untrained personnel from getting into situations beyond their training or abilities, and AFPAK Hands often resigning themselves to jobs that did nothing to influence U.S.-Afghan relationships. Even today, as I prepare for my second AFPAK Hands deployment, half of the original cohort of students is now gone -- departed because career progression demanded it or because the frustrating experience of their first tour gave them little desire to return.

Right People, Right Training, Right Assignments

Every new initiative suffers setbacks and implementation problems, and the experiences I have described with AFPAK Hands should not overshadow the sincere efforts by various managers and staff to improve the program since its inception. Fundamentally, the concept has great promise, but a clear-eyed discussion of the bureaucratic and structural factors that drove these early difficulties is vitally important to the future of preventive, light-footprint missions. If light-footprint missions are to become central to U.S. strategy, where dozens, not thousands, of troops work under the lead of civilian embassy authorities, then the fundamental assumptions that have determined personnel policies for much of the past decade may need to be re-examined or rewritten to get the right people, with the right training, into the right assignments.

Right People: Not Everyone Can Do Light-Footprint Missions

The selection course attended by candidates en route to the 7th Special Forces Group is just one version of a process used by nearly every organization in the broader special operations and intelligence community. Working to influence foreign partners, collect intelligence, and, on occasion, surgically apply violence requires a unique mix of maturity, cross-cultural competence, and creativity, and it is a mission better conducted by seasoned veterans than by 19-year-olds spoiling for their first firefight. The philosophy behind the rigorous screening is simple: "The wrong man can do more harm than the right man can do good." In light-footprint missions, amid today's hyper-globalized media environment, a single person in the wrong job can uproot entire campaigns and undo years of progress, and it is often better to leave a position empty than to send an untrained or unqualified person in to fail. Unfortunately, this concept is the polar opposite of the assignment methodology that has been used to fill many critical adviser and staff positions in the broader military for the past decade.

Adviser positions are generally stigmatized and relegated to subpar performers, and the centralized mechanisms to fill billets are talent-blind and based only on rank and specialty. The bureaucracy sees "major, combat arms," and not "bottom 20 percent performer" or "has never deployed" or "lacks relevant experience for the job." Moreover, even if a candidate has performed well in conventional assignments, qualities like the ability to learn a foreign language, work across cultures, operate with minimal guidance, or build rapport are all impossible to gauge without specifically screening for them. All too often, the mission is left to the mercy of a personnel assignment lottery, and progress only happens when chance places the right person in the right place.

The timing has never been better to reform selection mechanisms. After 12 years of continuous war in and among foreign populations, the U.S. military has never before possessed so many people in its ranks with the experience and aptitude working as foreign advisers, human intelligence professionals, linguists, development workers, and other critical skills. Yet the window of opportunity is closing: As the Army and Marines begin to cut 100,000 personnel during the next few years, policymakers and senior military leaders have announced plans to retain an expansible, experienced force that can be reconstituted rapidly in the event of a major war. The rationale is that under emergency conditions, entry-level soldiers can be trained in a matter of weeks, but midlevel leaders take years to develop. This leaves the military with a pressing need to retain a top-heavy rank structure and keep more majors, colonels, and senior noncommissioned officers than there are operational units to command. If these extra personnel are sent to administrative or institutional positions while they wait for a major contingency to break out, many will simply depart the service. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in his farewell speech: "Men and women in the prime of their professional lives, who may have been responsible for the lives of scores or hundreds of troops, or millions of dollars in assistance, or engaging or reconciling warring tribes, may find themselves in a cube all day re-formatting PowerPoint slides, preparing quarterly training briefs, or assigned an ever-expanding array of clerical duties... the consequences of this terrify me." Instead, the most effective way to keep the most experienced leaders from leaving the military may not be by awarding bonus pay or special incentives, but by selecting the best and keeping those with the right aptitude and skills engaged in light-footprint missions overseas. 
Right Training: The Limits of Modularity

Achieving the level of training required to thrive in complex environments among foreign populations demands a willingness to specialize not only in the mission, but also in the specific geographic region where it will be conducted; it requires a major cultural shift in the unit's mindset. The process takes years, not weeks, and goes far beyond what can be taught in a classroom at a pre-deployment training center. Advisers need to learn firsthand how to navigate the delicate politics of a U.S. embassy country team, not just be given a briefing on the State Department. They must be able to leverage the military professional culture of the partner nation, not just memorize lists of cultural dos and don'ts. They should know how to communicate in the same language as their foreign counterparts, not just recite the words for "hello" and "goodbye."

Unfortunately, this need to train specifically for light-footprint missions lies at odds with the military's overarching drive for modularity. Since the 1990s, ground forces have been designed to be interchangeable, rapidly deployable organizations that can "plug and play" anywhere in the world, and even the Army's recently unveiled "regionally aligned forces" concept reflects a deep hesitation to specialize. A 4,000-man test brigade has already been aligned with Africa and will conduct various decentralized, small-scale advisory missions there in the coming months. But regional alignment is temporary and still constrained by the limits of a system that reconstitutes and realigns units every three years. In other words, soldiers might conduct missions in Africa, but after three years, they will rotate and never return. Also, like all conventional forces, the brigades consist of a large number of very junior soldiers led by a small number of midlevel officers and sergeants. This arrangement might be effective for more centralized, large-scale combat operations, but when piecemeal teams of five, 10, or 20 soldiers are sent to various countries across the African continent, seasoned leaders run out quickly and the resulting lack of maturity or experience becomes a liability on the ground -- nothing will shut down a military engagement program faster than an international incident.

Instead, the demands of light-footprint missions suggest the need for some proportion of the military, beyond just the special operations community, to break away from modularity and truly specialize. Rather than "plug and play" building blocks that can go anywhere in the world, policymakers may also need a continuum of smaller-scale, regionally aligned capabilities -- a range of specialized tools instead of dozens of gigantic "Swiss Army knives." One possible institutional solution might be developing a stratified or tiered system of units that specialize in light-footprint missions. The conventional military lacks any standing adviser units, and very few small-scale "quick reaction force"-type teams (such as the Marine Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team) can easily support light-footprint missions. Yet even a cursory glance at today's security environment suggests that the special operations community cannot handle the full range of small-scale missions alone.

 Right Assignments: You Can't Surge Trust

For all its faults, the AFPAK Hands program made an earnest attempt to address the paralyzing criticism that Afghanistan was "not a ten year war, but a one year war fought ten times." By deploying language-capable advisers repeatedly into the country and encouraging them to build long-term relationships, the program aimed to make a disproportionately large impact on the campaign with a very small number of people. As Admiral William McRaven warned at the recent Aspen Security Forum, "You can't surge trust," and real influence with foreign counterparts, in Afghanistan or elsewhere, can only be developed over many years and repeat assignments. Unfortunately, while service as a foreign adviser is certainly not career-enhancing for most military volunteers, returning to do a second tour with the same counterparts is regarded as even worse, and the institutional pull to maintain competitiveness for promotion proved too strong for many AFPAK Hands.

To address the issue, the military may need to re-evaluate the incentives for advisory work, foreign languages, and overseas duty in support of small-scale missions. For instance, assignment opportunities may in some cases need to be mission- or country-based instead of installation- or unit-based. Rather than changing duty stations to Fort Bragg or Fort Hood, an officer might be assigned to a specific task force or embassy overseas, learning the language, then spending three or four years overseas or supporting policymakers in Washington. To facilitate these assignments, the rules regarding families and accompanied tours may need to be relaxed to fall more in step with other U.S. government agencies or even the civilian sector, or rotation cycles may need to be changed (e.g., three months deployed, three months home). These steps may seem drastic, but with the proper incentives and selection mechanisms, the number of volunteers may be surprisingly high. As the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan winds down and the opportunities to deploy decrease dramatically, even those officers who are selected to fill positions within standard combat units may find themselves essentially serving rear detachment duty -- preparing for simulated wars at national training centers while dozens of small-scale, real-world missions are being conducted in countries overseas.

Conclusion: System Reboot?

Despite the best intentions of senior officials, some worry that the frustrations of waging counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan may drive the military bureaucracy to repeat the post-Vietnam years, returning to the status quo of preparing for large conventional wars rather than retooling for smaller ones. Shawn Brimley and Vikram Singh call this a system reboot, or a tendency to "purge those military innovations most associated with a campaign that is considered a failure." While it is too early to tell which direction the Defense Department is headed, if the revised curriculum of the Army's Command and General Staff College offers any hint, future war will look conspicuously like it did before September 11, 2001. Officers from a recent class discovered that the school's final culmination exercise was focused not on irregular threats, but on planning a deliberate defense against a fictitious tank division attacking with old Soviet tactics.

The looming defense budget cuts only complicate matters, as they are likely to greatly intensify the Pentagon's natural institutional tendency to protect large, high-tech, expensive programs, while "squishy," esoteric programs such as language lessons, culture immersion, broadening experiences, advanced education, advisory units, and other human capital investments -- all invaluable to smaller missions -- have little hope of being prioritized. Without a concerted, sustained effort by military and civilian leaders at all levels, the state of affairs within the defense establishment may come to resemble the parable of the blind men and the elephant, with doctrine writers, strategists, operators, and budget analysts all drawing different lessons from the past decade of war and telling a different story about how the institution should change to remain relevant. Unless speeches and policy documents are backed up by culture, processes, doctrine, and strategic clarity, the light footprint will likely remain a niche capability confined to a few fringe military units, not an effective instrument of national policy. 
Major Fernando M. Luján is a visiting Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is an Army Special Forces officer and foreign area specialist currently participating in the Pentagon's Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands program. This article is adapted from his new report, Light Footprints: The Future of American Military Intervention.

How Recorded Future Works

How Recorded Future Works

Collect Public Web Content

Public Web ContentWe continually scan tens of thousands of high-quality news publications, blogs, public niche sources, trade publications, government web sites, financial databases and more.
Analyze the Text

Analyze TestFrom these open web sites, we identify references to entities and events. We detect time periods, when the events are predicted or reported to occur. Each reference links back to original source and is scored with analytics including positive and negative sentiment.
Visualize Insights

Visualize InsightsYou can explore the past, present and predicted future of almost anything in a matter of seconds. Our analysis tools facilitate investigation of temporal patterns and better understanding of complex relationships.
Going Deeper: The Advantage of Time
Recorded Future has a special focus on producing insights from human reporting on the web. Our Temporal Analytics™ Engine analyzes human-authored text at a massive scale.
  • First, we detect references to entities like people, groups and locations.
  • We extract more meaning by detecting the events - what these people and groups are doing and where it's happening.
  • Critically, we place these events in time: historical, today's news, and anticipated future events.
The following quotations from the web show how author refers to the same event with different language - in this case, the May 2013 elections in Pakistan. Our Temporal Analytics™ Engine empowers analysts by revealing these hidden links in meaning across time, sources and languages.

Published on January 7, 2013

Can Chaos Theory Teach Us Anything About International Relations (Joshua Keating)

We're all feeling different parts of the same elephant... it's just hard to make the connections when you view the world from within a silo.
This year marks that 50th anniversary of the branch of mathematics known as chaos theory. Appropriately enough for a field of study premised on the idea that seemingly insignificant events can have large and unpredictable consequences, the eureka moment of chaos is generally considered to be a short dense paper titled "Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow" published on page 130 of volume 20 of the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences in 1963.

As James Gleick writes in his very entertaining history, Chaos: Making of a New Science, "In the thousands of articles that made up the technical literature of chaos, few were cited more often than "Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow." For years, no single object would inspire more illustrations, even motion pictures, than the mysterious curve depicted at the end, the double spiral that became known as the Lorenz attractor."

The paper's author, Edward Lorenz, was an MIT mathematician working on an early computer weather modeling simulation. One day in 1961, in an effort to save time waiting for his vacuum tube-powered Royal McBee computer to run the program, Lorenz started his simulation from the middle, manually entering in data from an earlier simulation, but crucially, rounding a six decimal point number to three decimal points in order to save space. What Lorenz found after returning from a coffee break was that these tiny, seemingly arbitrary changes in his initial inputs had led to vastly different outcomes in the weather models he created.

As Gleick writes, "Lorenz saw more than randomness embedded in his weather model. He saw a fine geometrical structure, order masquerading as randomness." Lorenz, who died in 2008, would later become best known for coining the metaphor of the "butterfly effect" to describe systems that are extremely sensitive to their initial conditions.

Most casual readers can't understand much of the mathematics of chaos theory, but the basic principles were popularized thanks in part to Gleick's bestselling book,  not to mention the trippy Mandelbrot Set images that have graced countless screensavers and dorm room posters and, of course, Jeff Goldblum's character in Jurassic Park.

Chaos doesn't have quite the pop culture cachet that it used to, but the study of what Lorenz called nonlinear systems - those in which outputs are not necessarily proportional to inputs --  has been highly influential in fields ranging from physics, to engineering, to astronomy, agriculture to economics. (One of the main themes of Gleick's books is that researchers in different fields were often working along very similar lines without being aware of each other. Some of this work was actually going on years before Lorenz's "discovery.")

The late mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot's ideas about turbulence in financial markets have enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years thanks the global financial crisis. I was lucky enough to get the chance to interview Mandelbrot for FP a year before his death.

But chaos has also had applications in some less obvious areas, such as politics and international relations. In fact, there's an argument to be made that the ideas behind chaos are far more intuitive in the study of politics and armed conflict than in the natural sciences where it originated. Take, for example, the old English proverb that's second only to the Butterfly Effect as a commonly used layman's explanation for chaos:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

What, after all, is a better example of chaos theory than the harassment of a street vendor in Tunisia leading to a civil war in Syria?

As Ohio State political scientist Alan Beyerchen has argued, Carl von Clausewitz seemed to have an intuitive grasp of the idea of nonlinear systems and chaos more than a century before anyone used those terms. Take, for example, this passage from On War:

[I]n war, as in life generally, all parts of the whole are interconnected and thus the effects produced, however small their cause, must influence all subsequent military operations and modify their final outcome to some degree, however slight. In the same way, every means must influence even the ultimate purpose.

In more recent times, ideas from chaos and its related subfield complexity theory influenced the writing of Columbia International Relations theorist Robert Jervis, who in his book System Effects¸ argues that many social scientists don't adequately grapple with the fact that interconnected actors in a complex system can produce results that seem like vastly more or vastly less than the sum of the system's parts. Our own Stephen Walt summarized the argument in a review for the Atlantic back in 1998:

Because system effects are everywhere, Jervis emphasizes, "we can never do merely one thing." Any step we take will have an infinite number of consequences, some that we intend and others that we neither intend nor foresee. A military buildup may deter a threatening adversary and help to preserve peace, for example, but it may also divert funds from other social needs, encourage one's allies to free-ride, and cause formerly neutral states to become friendlier with one's rivals. The more complex the system and the denser the interactions between the parts, the more difficult it is to anticipate the full effects of any action.

More recently, some political scientists have tried to apply chaos to international relations even more explicitly. The Dutch military analyst Ingo Piepers, for instance, sees relations between great powers over the last five centuries as a complex system moving toward "attractors" like those described by Lorenz in his weather model.

Political scientists Joan Pere Plaza i Font and Dandoy Regis put together a very good and readable overview of chaos theory's applicability to political science in 2006. They write:

Chaos theory is particularly useful in the field of peace research. First, the more diverse possibilities are actualized in a given situation, in terms of both actors' roles and interactions between actors, the greater the likelihood of peace. Peace will therefore occur in states with high entropy, meaning that increasing disorder, messiness, randomness and unpredictability will bring more peace than it could occur in predictable or excessive ordered countries. Second, chaos theory aims to model whole systems, looking at overall patterns rather than isolating the cause-and-effect relations of specific parts of a system. Through this approach, chaos theory has discovered that many social systems are not simply orderly or disorderly. Some are orderly at times and disorderly at other times. Others are in constant chaotic motion, yet display an overall stability.

In an ambitiously titled 2007 paper, "A Chaotic Theory of International Relations? The Possibility for Theoretical Revolution in International Politics" the French IR theorist Dylan Kissane argues that a view of international relations derived from chaos theory provides an alternative to both the realist view of an international system defined by anarchy and the liberal view that highlights interdependence. Kissane writes that "chaos better reflects the reality of an international system where individuals and non-state actors can have a significant effect at the international or system level."

Much of Kissane's analysis is concerned with the distrution of power between actors in a chaotic system. "Unlike the anarchy of neorealist theory, chaos does not favour one distribution of power or security to another in terms of bringing stability to the system," he writes.

Kissane also discusses one of the primary limitations of the "chaotic theory" by quoting the late Kenneth Waltz's argument that "success in explaining, not in predicting, is the ultimate criterion for a good theory." Chaos may not fully pass this test:

"A theoretical approach to international relations that expects that anything can occur within the system and which simultaneously cannot fully explain why such an event occurred - outside some basic notions arising from the nature of the system - may not be much of a theory at all."

This may be where "Big Data" - a concept as trendy today as chaos was 20 years ago - comes into play. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s - around the same time Lorenz was doing his research on weather - many believed that the power of computers would eventually allow social movements and political trends to be predicted with a great degree of accuracy.

Today, most theorists have more modest goals. Chaotic systems are extremely difficult to predict in the long run, but they're also not entirely random - as Lorenz observed - and with enough detailed information, patterns emerge allowing short-term predictions to be made, though always with a degree of uncertainty. As Kalev Leetaru told me recently discussing the GDELT events database, "Most datasets that measure human society, when you plot them out, don't follow these nice beautiful curves," he says. They're very noisy because they reflect reality. So mathematical techniques now let us peer through that to say, what are the underlying patterns we see in all this."

In other words, we're hopefully getting better at analyzing patterns in war, peace, and social movements the same way Lorenz did in the months and years following his fateful coffee break.   

@OCEInnovation - Yours To Discover

So, three concepts that relate to this:

Cognitive Labour

Hubworld Ontario

Inspired Teamwork

Understanding is the place where diversity meets and innovations are sparked.

May 27 – 28, 2013
On behalf of the Government of Ontario, I am delighted to extend warm greetings to everyone participating in the Ontario Centres of Excellence Discovery Conference.
As Premier, I believe that innovation and creativity are vital to strengthening our institutions and energizing our economy. It is also key to securing our future.
Building communities of knowledge — enterprises and individuals who share information, exchange ideas and discuss best practices — is essential to creating a strong innovation infrastructure. That is why I would like to commend the delegates to this conference for coming together to discuss the challenges facing your respective sectors — and to offer ideas and possible solutions.
I wish to commend the Ontario Centres of Excellence for hosting this conference. Conferences like this strengthen the linkages we have established and set the stage for future innovations and partnerships.
Please accept my sincere best wishes for a productive and highly successful conference.

Common Code Words Leaders Use to Shun Accountabilityn (Dianna Booher)

Common Code Words Leaders Use to Shun Accountability

Words can clarify or confuse. A favorite pastime of mine is to watch politicians or corporate CEOs squirm when asked straightforward questions on sensitive issues. Accountability can be tough; the language of leadership is not for the faint-hearted.
Here are some of the top code lines that contribute to the growing cynicism in today’s workplace:
—”We’re not here to talk about the past. My focus is on the future.”
Translation: “I’ve made some mistakes and bad decisions that I don’t want to admit. Let’s not discuss those.”
Result: Others resist. They push to talk about those mistakes the leader is trying to push under the proverbial rug. And followers tend to emulate the leader, learning to side-step discussions about mistakes, weaknesses, or errors. Lesson learned by observation: Obfuscate. Distract. Triangulate.
—”With all due respect…”
Translation: ‘I’m about to make a disrespectful, insensitive comment that could be phrased more tactfully and objectively if I thought about it a moment.”
Result: Uncivil discourse prevails when open, honest dialogue would better solve challenging problems and strengthen, rather than weaken, relationships.
—”He left to pursue other opportunities.”
Translation: “He has been fired or asked to resign.” We routinely see and hear this statement when someone leaves an organization abruptly—even when a scandal involving them has made national headlines, when rumors run rampant, or when tweets trend to the top.
Result: Skepticism and distrust grow.
—”That division has seen less than stellar performance.”
Translation: “This division has hit rock bottom.” Or: “This division has decreased from its typically high performance.”
Result: This ambiguous statement sets off a scramble to accurately assess the department’s performance and its ramifications. Defenders of the performance will be upset. Outsiders will be alarmed.
—”It’s a no-brainer; this is a win-win opportunity.”
Translation: “I don’t want to take the time to identify, assess, and explain the real benefits.”
Result: The staff learns that declaring is as good as doing. That is, a phone call made… is as good as a phone call returned. A promise is as good as a signed contract. A product ordered is as good as a product installed.
—”She fell short of her potential.”
Translation: “We never set realistic goals, communicated those goals, nor prepared her to reach those goals.”
Result: Leaders continue to lie to themselves about the frequent cause of poor performance. Other observers fail to understand the cost of employee development.
So what’s a leader to do to become a straight-talker and build credibility? Own up,… polish up,… speak up.

When society is indifferent, democracy erodes - and hate flourishes

A Hungarian philosopher states the great challenge of our times - people are turning inward and becoming indifferent to the plight of others or the subtle corruptions of our governing institutions. At all levels, it was this “take what I can get” mentality that fuelled the European debt crisis. It’s beginning to happen here, too.

Stephen Harper told us that Canadians "don't care" about the operations of Parliament; his subsequent majority government proved him right. As long as taxes get cut and programs that don't impact "me" get cut, why should I care?

As a result, the attempted bribing of Chuck Cadman, the utterly false robocalls implying Irwin Cotler was resigning, fake lakes, billions of lost funds, "political truths", stifled representatives and Senate entitlement draws ire, but not action.

Note the trend - like a kid testing their boundaries, these "leaders" are pushing the boundaries of to see what they can get away with. The more they get away with, the more they do. These partisan operatives may pat themselves on the back , but this isn't about increasing cleverness - it's about eroding ethics.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's team has boasted of creating fake identities and spreading untruths to further their candidate's cause; what's unspooling now in Toronto politics is seen as "a distraction" rather than the crisis it is.

Oh - and that's at least three City Councillors who've been caught in DUI incidents getting off with a slap on the wrist. Would an average citizen have gotten off so easily? Would a Somali Canadian have gotten off so easily? There are other examples out there, past and present, of Political Parties who knew they had Members suffering from substance abuse problems but chose to do nothing for the individual, so long as the brand wasn’t tarnished.

Elie Wiesel tells us that "the opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference." Edmund Burke said something similar: “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

Mark Towhey, at the very least, tried to do something to help a leader in need. Can the same be said for others in political inner circles? Can it be said for citizens at large?

The wrong boundaries are being pushed – bitter, cynical and selfish approaches to politics are being overlooked while attempts at moving the ball in the opposite direction get ridiculed with attack ads.

We can’t turn our backs on these structural, social and personal problems much longer. Nobody is going to come down and solve our problems for us – it’s up to us, all of us, to take ownership of our society and make it whole again.

Thursday 23 May 2013

What Religion and Innovation Have in Common

"Envision things ahead of what is physically possible."
The paleomammalian part of our brain stores information and pulls it up as necessary, like a matching game filtered through emotions.  So far as we know, we're the only species that innovates expansively; there's really no need to proactively create new stuff or explain the world.  Or at least, there wasn't; with all the sociology we've been committing over the past several thousands of years, that has changed.
The "new" or "neo" part of our brain makes connections between ideas and plans ahead.  This bridging process happens through a neurochemical process involving neurotransmitters like dopamine. Dopamine, like all chemicals, has an effect on the human body; it creates a euphoric feeling, a sense of expansiveness and deep connectivity with a bigger world of which we're but a part.
Civilization - complex social hierarchies, agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare, philosophy, language and the rest of it - are human innovations.  We have literally taken materials that had no connection (like wood, tree sap and minerals) and developed wholly original creations out of them.
Worth noting; history is replete with religious figures who served as the catalysts of progress, not stalwarts of conservatism.  Religious practices around "clean" food and social rules (the Golden one comes to mind, as does charity) help foster cohesive societies and point people in a shared direction.  The whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.
Whether chicken or egg, religion has always been the synapse that creates societies out of individuals.
With that in mind, check out these two events that just happen to be planned for the same two days:
Discovery: Ontario Centres of Excellence                                                    @OCEInnovation
Thanks to Social Media platforms like Twitter, you can even follow and contribute to the conversations of both at the same time from anywhere in the world.  Pretty clever stuff.
Are you seeing the same connections I'm seeing?

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Mental Fitness (Brain can be trained in compassion, study shows)

An article that is, essentially, embracing the concept of mental fitness.  Gordon, I'd say you owe me a beer.
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Until now, little was scientifically known about the human potential to cultivate compassion—the emotional state of caring for people who are suffering in a way that motivates altruistic behavior.
A new study by researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that adults can be trained to be more compassionate. The report, published Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for , investigates whether training adults in can result in greater and related changes in underlying compassion.

"Our fundamental question was, 'Can compassion be trained and learned in adults? Can we become more caring if we practice that ?'" says Helen Weng, lead author of the study and a graduate student in . "Our evidence points to yes."

In the study, the investigators trained to engage in compassion meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique to increase caring feelings for people who are suffering. In the meditation, participants envisioned a time when someone has suffered and then practiced wishing that his or her suffering was relieved. They repeated phrases to help them focus on compassion such as, "May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease."

Participants practiced with different categories of people, first starting with a loved one, someone whom they easily felt compassion for like a friend or family member. Then, they practiced compassion for themselves and, then, a stranger. Finally, they practiced compassion for someone they actively had conflict with called the "difficult person," such as a troublesome coworker or roommate.

"It's kind of like ," Weng says. "Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion 'muscle' and respond to others' suffering with care and a desire to help."

Compassion training was compared to a control group that learned cognitive reappraisal, a technique where people learn to reframe their thoughts to feel less negative. Both groups listened to guided audio instructions over the Internet for 30 minutes per day for two weeks. "We wanted to investigate whether people could begin to change their emotional habits in a relatively short period of time," says Weng.

The real test of whether compassion could be trained was to see if people would be willing to be more altruistic—even helping people they had never met. The research tested this by asking the participants to play a game in which they were given the opportunity to spend their own money to respond to someone in need (called the "Redistribution Game"). They played the game over the Internet with two anonymous players, the "Dictator" and the "Victim." They watched as the Dictator shared an unfair amount of money (only $1 out of $10) with the Victim. They then decided how much of their own money to spend (out of $5) in order to equalize the unfair split and redistribute funds from the Dictator to the Victim.

"We found that people trained in compassion were more likely to spend their own money altruistically to help someone who was treated unfairly than those who were trained in cognitive reappraisal," Weng says.

"We wanted to see what changed inside the brains of people who gave more to someone in need. How are they responding to suffering differently now?" asks Weng. The study measured changes in brain responses using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and after training. In the MRI scanner, participants viewed images depicting human suffering, such as a crying child or a burn victim, and generated feelings of compassion towards the people using their practiced skills. The control group was exposed to the same images, and asked to recast them in a more positive light as in reappraisal.

The researchers measured how much brain activity had changed from the beginning to the end of the training, and found that the people who were the most altruistic after compassion training were the ones who showed the most brain changes when viewing human suffering. They found that activity was increased in the inferior parietal cortex, a region involved in empathy and understanding others.

Compassion training also increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the extent to which it communicated with the nucleus accumbens, brain regions involved in emotion regulation and positive emotions.

"People seem to become more sensitive to other people's suffering, but this is challenging emotionally. They learn to regulate their emotions so that they approach people's suffering with caring and wanting to help rather than turning away," explains Weng.

Compassion, like physical and academic skills, appears to be something that is not fixed, but rather can be enhanced with training and practice. "The fact that alterations in brain function were observed after just a total of seven hours of training is remarkable," explains UW-Madison psychology and psychiatry professor Richard J. Davidson, founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and senior author of the article.

"There are many possible applications of this type of training," Davidson says. "Compassion and kindness training in schools can help children learn to be attuned to their own emotions as well as those of others, which may decrease bullying. Compassion training also may benefit people who have social challenges such as social anxiety or antisocial behavior."

Weng is also excited about how compassion training can help the general population. "We studied the effects of this training with healthy participants, which demonstrated that this can help the average person. I would love for more people to access the and try it for a week or two—what changes do they see in their own lives?"

Both compassion and reappraisal trainings are available on the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds' website. "I think we are only scratching the surface of how compassion can transform people's lives," says Weng. Provided by Association for Psychological Science

Rise of the Domesticated Ape

Compassion, like physical and academic skills, appears to be something that is not fixed, but rather can be enhanced with training and practice. "The fact that alterations in brain function were observed after just a total of seven hours of training is remarkable," explains UW-Madison psychology and psychiatry professor Richard J. Davidson, founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and senior author of the article.

"There are many possible applications of this type of training," Davidson says. "Compassion and kindness training in schools can help children learn to be attuned to their own emotions as well as those of others, which may decrease bullying. Compassion training also may benefit people who have social challenges such as social anxiety or antisocial behavior."
The first reaction of many reading this article will be "The horror!  The horror!"  Communists!  Social Engineers, committing sociology in our schools and on our streets!  Man is born independent and free and must remain that way, unfettered by the chains of civilization!
Which, you know, is true and all, except where it comes to complex consumer goods (requiring centrally-coordinated labour and accommodation to make), education (basic social skills like reading, writing, math and work skills ranging from widget-making to project management) healthcare (which is reengineering human evolution, for Pete's sake) and the like are concerned.
Here's the thing, Randian purists; our "natural", pre-civilization state as a species was lived on the plain, being chased by predators and picking each other's lice as a pass time.  Individual strength (and luck) allowed for survival in the face of predators and the acquisition of goods that would otherwise go to weaker members of the species (today we call "take what you want by force" crime, but whatever).  Natural disasters, bad storms, plagues, etc. were all things that were beyond control.
The double-horror to which Conrad refers in Heart of Darkness is the primal, bestial, emotional creature that lies in the heart of men (and women).  This is the reactionary self, the selfish persona, the hyper-focused perspective we are told is desirable for success in a competitive world.  Charity begins at home, etc.
But that's not the history of history, is it?  Civilization began with an altruistic urge; the same neurochemical-motivated urge can be witnessed in a host of other species, ranging from apes to elephants to those rascally birds and bees.  Environment plays a big factor; for the same reason human societies in rugged, hard-to-access mountainous terrain are more likely to be and stay tribal than on flat, lush flood plains, animals under certain environmental threats are more likely to be selfish.
As homo sapiens have increasingly flexed our altruistic, forward-thinking and planning abilities, we have strained that part of our brain that is more developed in humans than any other species.  Think about that for a second; the brain of a modern human is more capable of altruism than our ancestors would have been, or our nearest relatives like bonobos and chimps are (though they're starting to catch up).  Natural selection has increasingly favoured altruism and pro-social behaviour as favourable adaptations.
It's worked, too - for all our many continued faults we have cured illnesses, extended life, helped the blind see and can even return the clinically dead back to the living.  Where there were barren wombs before the genesis of life can now take hold.  All of these innovations have been possible as a result of collaboration, critical thinking and evidence-based policy development.  Cooperation, social co-habitation, public transit, shared communications systems, mass media, all of it is only possible because we have it in ourselves to give to each other and gain something personal through the process.
To become more than the sum of our parts, collectively, we've had to tame the selfish beast within.
But we still have crime, greed, reactive behaviour, leaders without vision and strategists without plans.  Some of this is genetic - inherited from parents or attributable, at least in part, to faulty cognitive wiring.  What we find, though, is that certain environmental conditions (poverty, abuse, access to social programs and positive role models, social inclusion, etc.) create conditions that favour selfish, aggressive behaviour.  This is why slums are breeding grounds for crime; it's also why from a strictly free-market business model, criminals are actually the fittest operators.  If you put differing people in those same conditions, they will face the same likelihood of succumbing to the same pressures. 
Of course, nobody who doesn't have to proactively moves into a slum because the property's cheap, right?  There are real risks to being the only rich guy on the block; unless you want to protect yourself with firewalls and drones, giving a bit back is the surest way to build your own sustainable safety.
Our "natural" state is selfish; everything from "Johnny, share your toys with your brother" to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you", even including the language we speak and the fashions we prefer are all a matter of social programming.  That's why so many reactive people are suspicious of education; it's like a contagion, softening the aggressive edges that are designed to help us survive in the wild. 
Whatever our programming might lead us to feel, though, we're selfish actors living in a social setting; in urban environments, everything from driving to work to having clean streets and accessing public transit requires social skills that must be leaned.

Humans are the domesticated ape - it's us that's made it so.  Even wilderness survival has to be trained.
With all this in mind - why not explore the potential of social-emotional learning, positive psychology, occupational mental health design and restorative justice?  Whatever we might feel about "social engineering" the evidence weight far more heavily on the side of proactive, prosocial approaches (including training) than selfish, laissez-faire ones (including tough-on-crime policies in the absence of committing sociology).  We can train our youth to be more resilient, adaptive and effective in a modern economic context.  We can empower our cognitive labour, reducing presenteeism and increasing both output and innovation.  We can manage down our growing mental-health crisis.  We can even start addressing the root causes of crime, starting in the Justice system but moving out to touch the front line and our varied communities.
It's literally our future.
The Heart of Darkness lies behind us;  the way forward is consciously touched by fire.


Tuesday 21 May 2013

Michael Bryant calls the casino industry’s bluff (Michael Bryant)

Big ideas, beautifully written by a brilliant mind.  Wouldn't it be something if we could harness genius in a way that didn't let it consume those touched by it's fire?

Michael Bryant calls the casino industry’s bluff

“A casino is a factory of broken dreams — a scam for “recreational” gamblers, a shell game for taxpayers, and a rat trap for addicts”
by Michael Bryant on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 2:29pm
Casinos are best avoided for guys like me. Something was always too foreboding about them, like a mainstream, even highbrow way to ruin.
I always knew not to hang out in places with anything bright, shiny, ringing with promise, sirens of that next new experience even better than good bourbon with good company. Eventually, for the untreated addict, that self-protective fear erodes, and they stumble past lines once drawn in the sand, their brains starved for dopamine, their serotonin increasingly useless, their sanity long gone. More, more, more.
Casinos are just part of that lust for more: a little forbidden, a lot of booze, the allure of elusive jackpots, the escape imagined therein.

One fine spring, years ago, my then-wife Susan and I decided to turn the tables on Atlantic City. We’d stay at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, but we wouldn’t gamble there. Oh no. We’d enjoy the discounted hotel rates, restaurants led by famous chefs, the elegant spa and the beaches on the Jersey Shore.
It was the worst holiday ever. When she complained about a minor injury, incurred on the premises, security guards showed up and waiver forms were pulled out; they seemed to fear litigation from this former Supreme Court of Canada law clerk and her Harvard lawyer husband. They eventually explained: People at their hotel hurled themselves down stairs to trigger lawsuits that might offset their gambling losses. There was a reason why you couldn’t open your windows in a casino hotel. Suddenly we felt like we were in a very strange place.
There was no way to go anywhere in that hotel without passing through the casino. On the way to and from our rental car, on the way to a restaurant, there was just no way to avoid those ringing bells and neon winks. The games, the slots, the pretty girl with a complimentary bourbon and soda, just like I liked it back then. (I stopped drinking in 2006, as I set out in Maclean’s for the first time last year, in an excerpt from my memoir, 28 Seconds.) Yes, I was indignant about these places, and yes, I wouldn’t let them fool me, but a few pulls on the slot machine couldn’t hurt, and I wouldn’t spend more than the $20 in my wallet and I wouldn’t go to that ATM that seemed to follow me, to get more cash, more chips, more tokens.
This was the biggest and fanciest casino in Atlantic City, making it one of the fanciest in the world, and still, in the morning, through my hangover’s veil, I could glimpse its fake, suburban feel.
A casino is a factory of broken dreams. It’s a scam for “recreational” gamblers, a shell game for taxpayers, and a rat trap for addicts. Walk this factory floor on a weekday afternoon; it will be, as Toronto Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong said of the Woodbine slots, “the saddest thing you’ll ever see.”
They design casinos like a 3D movie but not everyone gets to wear the glasses—only the dealers, the managers, all the shills, and once in a blue moon, a winner.
So maybe you’re cool, flush, and the allure of getting to wear those 3D glasses is enough for you. Except that by the time you finish reading this, you’ll feel like you’ve been pick-pocketed by your government, and they’ve been pick-pocketed by the casino industry, which means, well, we’re all just a mark.
The so-called debate over a Toronto mega-casino is taking place in a parallel universe, as if a casino in the Greater Toronto Area might not happen. A casino is going ahead, regardless. The only blank to be filled in is the area code. Is the mega-casino complex going to be here or there in downtown Toronto, or in Markham or Vaughan?
Not Toronto, as of last week, when Mayor Rob Ford pronounced “dead” his dream of a waterfront casino, and the Ontario finance minister fired the chair of Ontario Lottery and Gaming (OLG), the self-described “largest gaming organization in North America.” But that just moves the new mega-casino a little north of Lake Ontario. The Ontario government shifted leadership and direction at OLG last week, by firing its leader, Paul Godfrey. But they are still budgeting for a 12 per cent increase in gambling revenue.
The deal is done. The casinos are coming. In fact, in less than a half century, Canada has gone from a jurisdiction that criminalized casinos and lotteries to one where provincial government treasuries see gambling dollars as their best bet for easy money. For the Ontario Treasury, gambling dollars now exceed boozing dollars by over a quarter of a billion.
When was this casino deal done? In July 2010, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan announced the Ontario government’s direction to OLG: “modernize”—i.e., privatize and double the money. Less than two years later, the casino plans for the GTA was announced. (My tenure in the Dalton McGuinty government predated the internal cabinet debate and external announcement.)
The brutal logic of the OLG privatization and expansion is that Ontarians are now counting on those dollars, rendering happy projects for which there will be a cornucopia of fingerprints.
Casinos incubate addictions, like old bread in a damp basement. One disbarred, ex-con of a friend gambled it all away, his life in ruins. I know too many guys who go there to die a little, guys and gals who took this roller coaster from frequenter of government liquor store and government slots or casino, buried under an avalanche of government advertising to drink and gamble more, to government-funded emergency room, detox centre, treatment centre, provincial jail, family court, welfare cheque and, tragically, right back into that Crown corporation to gamble and drink, or miraculously, into recovery and escape from that insanity. These poor suckers sunk themselves and then some saved themselves, but they were all more harmed than helped by this phony baloney about entertainment, casino jobs, tourism, and easy money for public goods.
Part of the con is the brilliant foundational work done by those in the casino industry who have gamed the debate to be about fuzzy social costs versus cold, hard economic benefits. Calling proceeds from a gambling enterprise “economic benefits” or “net profits” is being economical with the truth.
We have no idea how harmful casinos are, in terms of social costs, by way of suicides, poverty, addictions and the harm wrought. Nor do we have any idea about economic benefits, other than how much gets collected by provincial governments. More than $13 billion across Canada in 2010 was collected from gamblers, and all that can be projected because the games are fixed so as to produce billions in losses to gamblers hoping to strike it rich.
You don’t believe me? Read the fine print and weep. It’s called the “house advantage.” As Ontario Lottery and Gaming makes very clear in their companion website (, “With the possible exception of professional blackjack players and some poker players … over time, every casino game played results in a loss or expenditure for the player … While any single bet can result in a win at any time, loss is inevitable in all casino games over time. No system of betting can overcome the house advantage.”
Think about that. You go to a casino to win, to have fun. OLG wants you there for another reason. They know you’re hoping to win, but they know you’re going to lose. They take those losses—those guaranteed losses, guaranteed by the house advantage that “no system of betting can overcome”—and OLG calls those gambling losses “net profit” in all their public statements.
OLG’s “net profit” is a fine piece of Orwellian gibberish. These dollars are obtained from the guaranteed losses incurred by the gamblers and lotto ticket buyers. So gambling “profit” is not like profit wherein a customer buys a movie ticket and the theatre owner earns a profit. There is no risk of loss to OLG; there are legally guaranteed losses by casino-goers. There is no “profit” for taxpayers in the distribution of (mostly) taxpayers’ gambling losses to the provincial treasury. Ontario Lottery and Gaming is just a tax collector with a light show and an advertising budget.
This is more crudely put by the “Mob’s accountant” and casino pioneer Meyer Lansky: “There’s no such thing as a lucky gambler. There are just the winners and losers. The winners are those who control the game … all the rest are suckers.”
Why are they suckers? Because Lansky is correct: gamblers lose their money to casinos because casinos control the games. The advertisements promoting casinos, and the bells and whistles on the casino floor, all tell you that this is fun and you might strike it rich. But these casinos are just taking your money, and that’s a dirty trick. This isn’t “net profit” for Ontarians. It’s easy money, dirty money, money for nothin’, as the song goes. The same goes for all the lotto money in Canada, and those shameless “Welcome to Cloud 6/49″ commercials running in Ontario.
Who are the suckers? Up to 50 per cent of pathological gamblers are alcoholics or drug addicts, making casinos a rat trap for drunks and junkies. I know it was for me, though I never had enough cash to do much damage to my wallet. Plus, I retained enough fear and sanity to keep me the hell away from those places for most of my life.
Nor are the suckers high rollers. In the U.S., less than 10 per cent of the healthy casino-goers make more than $100,000 a year. Most make less than $50,000, whether substance-abusing recreational gamblers or non-abusers. Let me repeat that: most casino-goers make less than $50,000 per year. So the suckers are more likely to be the working class, the underemployed and the unemployed. These are the people from whom OLG extracts the billions in net profit. This is how OLG can project billions of revenue for the Ontario budget, annually verified by the provincial auditor.
But that shell game, that legalized scam, is usually lumped into additional, so-called economic benefits to come from “modernized” entertainment gaming complexes, as bragged about by OLG on its website: “thousands of spinoff jobs in construction and infrastructure.” Unlike the billions of gambling losses guaranteed by the “house advantage,” the promise of jobs, tourism dollars and “spinoffs” are all speculative.
The former chair of OLG speculated about the economic benefits of a casino thusly: “This project will create 6,000 construction jobs … Once completed, the project will directly employ over 12,000 people in well-paying jobs and … spur further creation of other indirect [benefits] and induce employment … It could generate up to $400 million in additional tourism revenue,” and “could propel Toronto into …. the Top 10 in overall convention business in the world.”
Maybe. But the private consortium that wins the bidding war for the GTA casino project will do so by keeping their costs down, to maximize profit, in exchange for the risk they will take in building, operating and maintaining the casino. So while the outgoing chairman wanted those job numbers up, the private consortium wants to keep costs down, which means less jobs and/or lower wages, to avoid less dividends and a lower share price.
A 2007 study in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology concluded that “the casino industry does not have an impact on economic growth at the state level.” So all the pro-casino boosterism about economic development is either bogus or questionable. It is far from clear that casinos boost an economy, even leaving aside the social costs, and also leaving aside the pressure that casinos put on other entertainment industries.
Even the gaming revenues themselves are not necessarily a net benefit to Ontario’s economy. “There are two simple questions: Where does the money come from, and where does the money go?” says William Thomson, a professor of public administration at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, in a 2007 Wall Street Journal article. “If the customers live in the local area, there’s no way you can have economic development.” In other words, every Ontario resident walking into a casino is financing this phony profit from his or her actual losses.
Perhaps saddest of all is how so much will go into such a small, small idea. In the life of a government, there are only so many hours in the day; the time and resources are limited. When I look at all the hullabaloo around this gambling enterprise, I wonder what might have been. All this political energy and planning and public relations and all that lobbying; the campaigns, the fancy websites, the phony consultations, the maps, the requests for proposals and all the lawyering and accounting and consulting; the political commentary, hand-wringing, bureaucracy reports and committee meetings and council debates; the financing and construction and hospitality job applications. All of this, for a casino.
But there is a better way, and now it’s time for me to stop kvetching and start offering something useful. Casinos are coming no matter what, no matter the government in power. So what to do? I say use the casinos, the slots, and bingo as social and medical science laboratories. Study who is going in and out of the buildings, everything about the gamblers, in every way imaginable. Let’s stop guessing about the social costs of casinos, and find out, using the leverage that comes with a state-sponsored project. Call the bluff of privatization and require casino operators to collect information about the gamblers and their behaviour.
As for the gamblers’ civil rights, this is the additional price they pay for access to a casino. If these places are really the bastions of “entertainment, innovation and fun games” that OLG says they are, then what’s the harm? It’s like showing ID at the LCBO. Or presenting your Scene card at Cineplex movie theatres. Instead of corporations collecting consumer information relevant only to their bottom line, they can collect information, available only to government authorities, to allow for research that is obviously in the public interest.
Ask any social science or medical researcher how they gather information for research purposes. They do it all the time. All those studies that make you veer from trans fats and toward kale; that make you slather on sunscreen; that led to the denormalization of tobacco usage, chasing smokers outdoors. Invite the University Health Network and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and all the universities in Ontario to submit proposals about how it can be done. There is already a measure of this happening right now. Just expand it and be ambitious.
Next, either ban all advertising for gaming, or split the advertising down the middle. For every “Cloud 6/49″ or pro-gambling ad, a contrary ad must be run, back-to-back. Or simply require that the advertising budget for provincial gaming corporations be matched by advertising run by a coalition of anti-gamers.
Next, let’s determine where the gambling “net profit” will be directed, unlike other forms of provincial government revenue. The anecdotal information on where the OLG dollars goes is just that. The truth is that the bulk of OLG revenue goes into Ontario’s consolidated revenue fund—the big budget pot.
Without that revenue, there would be a shortfall that exceeds the annual budget of many government ministries. But it’s still only two per cent of the annual spending for Ontario, so OLG “net profit” is primarily absorbed into a variety of spending priorities. Yes, there are the happy announcements referred to previously, but there is no direct accounting between dollars taken in from the gambler and dollars spent on the taxpayer. Fix that. Let’s determine where the dollars are to be directed, and then account for that.
Where ought the $2 billion be directed? Open source that question. Invite applications, not unlike the requests for proposals that will be issued for casino construction.
This has never been done before, on this scale, and that just invites innovation. The government can set forth broad priorities for the proposals, ranging from revenue generation to health care and education. Maybe add alternatives, like poverty reduction, transportation, energy, infrastructure, or even the settlement of all Aboriginal land claims. I would advocate for a government to really make this a signature piece. For Conservatives, they’d be less likely to call for proposals to increase welfare rates. For New Democrats and Liberals, they’d be less likely to focus on revenue generation, because it’s not exactly a retail political winner.
An example of a big, new innovative idea? Imagine that we could diagnose children for learning disabilities, cognitive conditions, and mental illness, by a blood test, or an affordable and accessible brain scan, right in their local public school. Then imagine that there was technology that assisted those students to address any cognitive or behavioural function that harms more than helps them to learn. Now let’s see the cost of having the appropriate tests in the health care system, the justice system, and other government services, that would allow any Canadian to have that same diagnosis: a blood test or brain scan that didn’t involve a waiting list and limited access. And that diagnosis could determine whether the person has the brain of an addict, a bipolar, or borderline personality. It could test for anxiety and depression as easily as we currently test for diabetes or AIDS or cholesterol levels. (Such tests exist, but are neither accessible nor affordable on a mass scale, let alone outside the doors of the health care system.)
Then imagine how the various sectors of health, education, and justice might transform correctional facilities into giant treatment centres. These people need treatment to go from addicted, mentally ill, at-risk convicts to recovering highly productive and low-risk citizens.
Now, commercialize that technology, that education curriculum, that correctional system program and that health care delivery model and you’re looking at a net profit on your investment of $2 billion. And when I say net profit, nobody blushes with anything but pride at the public achievement.
I bet that Ontario could do that for $2 billion per year, and then even develop a project that would allow state-sponsored gambling to be obsolete and unnecessary because that giant casino-turned-research project confirmed our worst fears, and outrage ensues because the actual social costs, the horror stories, indeed outweigh the overestimated economic benefits, and we forge a better way to raise $2 billion a year that could truly be called “net profit,” and then some.
But wait: governments can’t do that. They don’t do that. Consumer-directed taxation is bad public policy, we’re often told. The problem is that some seniors won’t pay an education tax if there is no one in their lives going to school any more. Nor would a twentysomething pay a tax directed at geriatric research.
However, governments pretend that gambling revenue is not a tax, but net profit. Even then, directing the profits from, say, Ontario hydroelectricity gains to particular programs is bad public policy. The difference is that the $128 billion that comes into government is nothing like the dirty money of OLG—an exceptional revenue generator, which deserves exceptional treatment. Plus, we’re talking about two per cent of provincial government revenue. Think of it as an experiment.
Besides, that’s exactly how lotteries were used in the first place, in Canada, and much of the world. Copying Munich’s 1972 GlücksSpirale (i.e., lottery, though literally “happy spiral”), the Olympic Lottery Canada was created in 1974 to finance the ’76 Olympics, then was continued as Loto-Canada to address the large debt left thereafter. A Criminal Code amendment was needed to legalize that lottery, the original idea being that lotteries were exceptional, and could finance special projects.
Eventually, of course, all provincial governments and territories became addicted to gaming revenue, so much so that since 1980 they make an annualized payment to the federal government to keep the feds out of lotteries. Loto-Canada was eating into provincial lottery revenue, so the provinces and territories bought themselves an oligopoly. Nevertheless, the original purpose of legalized gaming in Ontario, and the rest of Canada, was to finance the kind of special megaproject I’m proposing herein.
Moreover, OLG already directs a fraction of its revenue to a specific source: First Nations. In 2008, I negotiated an agreement with Ontario First Nations, on behalf of the government, to avoid the kind of rampant casino proliferation that dominates Native American economies in California, and several other states. The deal was that Ontario First Nations would partner with OLG, not compete with OLG, and they would abandon litigation claiming Aboriginal rights to gaming development (as exists in the U.S.), in exchange for a share of OLG revenue.
So OLG is already built to channel its revenue directly to particular Ontario sources, and it is subject to the kind of accountability the public deserves. Now, take that model, and use the dollars to fund this new open-sourced Ontario megaproject. A project for the ages, one that tries to eclipse in its public benefit and societal ambition, the shabby piece of public policy that is OLG “modernization.”
Now, that would be something. It would be something that neither embraces gaming’s inexorable expansion, nor denies the conventional wisdom that “gambling is inevitable,” as concluded by the U.S. Commission on the Review of the National Policy Toward Gambling in 1976. Or, as Mayor Rob Ford puts it, of a Toronto casino: “I don’t know how you can say no.”
Michael Bryant is a former Ontario Attorney-General, Minister of Economic Development, and Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, and was a Toronto MPP (1999-2009). A Harvard-trained lawyer, Bryant currently teaches at the University of Toronto, and is an aboriginal affairs consultant at Ishkonigan. He is the author of 28 Seconds: A True Story of Addiction, Tragedy and Hope (Penguin, 2012).