Bureaucracy and “Pink Flamingo” Events

The COVID-19 emergency has led to calls from the usual suspects to punish Donald Trump for his alleged failure to foresee it and his alleged delayed action to curtail it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has called the administration’s response “almost sinful.”

The New York Times has done its part in laying blame for the crisis exclusively on the president. Democrats have called for a 9/11-style commission to investigate the president and his administration. Some have even called for impeachment redux.

Andrew McCarthy has cautioned against a 9/11-style commission, arguing that such an effort serves no purpose other than rank partisanship. Of course, blame casting is nothing new in American politics.

Consider the “Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War,” during the Civil War. Led by Radical Republicans who believed Abraham Lincoln’s prosecution of the war was not aggressive enough, the committee looked over Lincoln’s shoulder for the duration of the conflict, calling generals back to Washington to testify and grilling those they believed were not sufficiently committed to their own strategic vision.

The committee did little good and much harm to the Union cause, not the least by demoralizing the Union’s top generals. Eschewing prudence and ignoring the political conditions that Lincoln faced, the committee constantly criticized the president for his alleged timidity. Had it prevailed in forcing its policies on Lincoln, the Union cause most likely would have been lost in 1862.

Trump was not alone in reacting slowly to the emergency. Many of the same experts who have been trotted out to bludgeon the president were also slow to recognize the extent of the danger. These include Dr. Anthony Fauci, who in a January 23 Journal of the American Medical Association podcast repeatedly downplayed the virus’s potential impact on the nation, reasoning that “due to limited testing in China, the number of infections was likely much higher than official counts, meaning that the death rate of the virus was likely much lower than feared.”

Yet the lack of preparedness in the case of an emergency such as COVD-19 has been a long-standing problem.

The source of this problem was identified five years ago by my friend and brilliant former student, Frank Hoffman. In an essay  addressing the design of military forces, Hoffman gets right to the heart of the current emergency: the COVID-19 pandemic is a “pink flamingo” event.

We cannot pierce the opaqueness of the future, nor can we simply stand pat and wait for the appearance of the “unknown unknowns” or tomorrow’s black swans. A black swan is an event or situation which is unpredictable and for which the consequences could not be measured. This is not a useful risk construct for planners, as neither the probability nor the consequence of a black swan can be assessed. This is why risk analysts today focus on our gray swans, events that can be anticipated, but are considered so unlikely that they are ignored in analyzing or adapting to new threats.

Thinking historically about the future means dealing openly with those things we want to avoid or are in denial about. These are what I call our pink flamingoes. A pink flamingo is a predictable event that is ignored due to cognitive biases of a senior leader or a group of leaders trapped by powerful institutional forces. These are the cases which are “known knowns,” often brightly lit, but remaining studiously ignored by policymakers.

The point is not to absolve the Trump Administration of its flawed response to the COVID-19 emergency, but to put the response into some reasonable context.

The danger is that the United States will do what it always does when it suffers a strategic surprise: create another level of bureaucracy. That was our response after 9/11. Because of the CIA’s failure to predict such an event, Congress, based on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.

One is hard-pressed to see any improvement in the subsequent performance of the U.S. “Intelligence Community.” Akin to shutting the barn door after the horse has escaped, a new bureaucracy is unlikely to do any better when it comes to pink flamingo events.

About Mackubin Owens

Mackubin Thomas Owens is a retired Marine, professor, and editor who lives in Newport, RI.

Photo: Getty Images

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