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July 29, 2003

Administration kills first good antiterrorism

Daniel Radosh

Administration kills first good antiterrorism idea it's had. That was fucking quick, huh? And very unfortunate. It's sad that people let their emotions (and knee-jerk anti-Bushism) overcome their reason on this issue. Because a future markets to predict terrorist attacks is a brilliant idea, as James Surowiecki explained in the The New Yorker last March. Unlike every other idea to come out of Ashcroftland, this one threatened no one's privacy, cost almost nothing, and carried little risk other than to one's sensibilities. It's not a perfect system (several of the stocks cited by Surowiecki went bust) but neither is the one we have, and could have been a great tool once the kinks were worked out.

The biggest legitimate concerns were how to keep terrorists from either gaming the system (running up stocks on a bogus attack to misdirect resources from a real one) or profiting from it (plan attacks, invest in them, then carry them out and make a buck). An obvious solution would seem to be to simply limit the pool of investors slightly. Anonymity is important, but it would be easy enough to ensure that everyone registering is, say, a citizen of certain approved countries, an employee of certain approved governments, or even an employee of a U.S. intelligence agency. Couldn't some of these people still be terrorists? Yes, but not enough to make a difference. Would the limitations compromise the markets? Yes, but not as much as cancelling the plan outright. Imagine if all the FBI field agents who thought something might be in the works before 9/11 could have put their money into it, instead of trying futiley to warn their superiors. That pool alone would have made a difference.

What really galls (can you tell I'm galled?) is that the plan was killed not because of legitimate reasons, but because it was called "ridiculous" (which it was not) and "grotesque" (which it was, but, you know, not as grotesque as the attacks it might have prevented).

At least the Pentagon can still keep an eye on NewsFutures.com. Don't tell Ron Wyden.

Update: Instapundit has a bunch of useful links about predictive markets. Naturally the blogsophere loved this idea. Well, not the left, unfortunately -- c'mon people, even a stopped clock, etc. Lean Left doesn't even get the premise. We're not counting on terrorists to bid up their own plans! We're counting on the aggregate educated guesses of the masses to be more accurate than the "knowledge" of the experts. It's happened before. So here's a real test of the bloggers' self-proclaimed power. It's easy to help pull someone down (Howell Raines, Trent Lott) but can they turn the debate around so that it's politically viable for the Pentagon to go ahead with this again? (Hint: don't by any shares in it.)

Gina asks why the Pentagon needs to be involved. Can't someone else start a private terror futures market? Good question. The government has the advantage of not needing to turn a profit, but perhaps some less squeamish civic minded institution will pick up the pieces here.

Update: This does seem like reasonable concern.

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