Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Obama The "Underpants Gnome"

If you are unfamiliar with the 'Underpants Gnomes' this post is not going to make much sense to you. The Underpants Gnomes come from an episode during season two of South Park. The Gnomes went around stealing underpants. When asked what they were doing with the underpants, the Gnomes explained that it was part of their business plan. Phase one is collecting underpants. They did not know what phase two was, but explained that phase three was profit. More simply:

Phase one - collect underpants
Phase two - ?
Phase three - profit

To see the short clip head over to (minor Content Warning for language, but this is something that you would see on cable at night) http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/151040 or for the full episode go to http://www.southparkstudios.com/episodes/103595/?autoplay=false.

The 'Underpants Gnome theme' has become a decently well known metaphor. It is a criticism of a plan that is missing an important step. The Gnome's business plan was missing the important step or phase of how the underpants turned into profit. That would be phase two which is blank.

Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal makes a comparison between Obama and the Underpants Gnomes. He explains the missing step as requiring a leap of faith. I think that may be a little kind.

Obama is by no means the only 'Underpants Gnome offender', or someone who proposes one policy in the hopes of a specific outcome without clearly accounting for how the policy will lead to the outcome. As Stephens' article shows, Obama is one such offender. In my experience, offenders are generally liberals.

Specifically regarding Obama's plans:

Create a Healthy and stable Economy
Phase one - Deficit spend in the trillions a year for the next decade
Phase two - (pray for the Keynesian effect)?
Phase three - Healthy, stable, and debt free Economy

Middle East Peace
Phase one - High level talks with the Terrorists and other despots
Phase two - ?
Phase three - Peace in the Middle East and an end to terrorism

Closing Guantanamo Bay prison
Phase one - Announce the closing of Guantanamo Bay
Phase two (what to do with the prisoners) - ?
Phase three - Guantanamo Bay Prison is shut down and empty

Nuclear free North Korea
Phase one - Continue with the ineffective six party talks
Phase two - ?
Phase three - A North Korea without nuclear weapons

Protect America from terrorists
Phase one - Curtail what our guardians can do to ensure our continued protection
Phase two - ?
Phase three - A safer America

Do not get me wrong. There may be some legitimate connection between various phase one and phase threes. That said, the connection must actually be legitimate and the proposer should be forced to make that connection clearly.

I think the 'Underpants Gnome' metaphor can also be used to criticize a plan where the linking step of phase just seems ridiculous or impossible.

For the 'Protect America from terrorists', Obama's phase two logic seems to be that stopping certain intelligence gathering practices the terrorists will not hate us as much or not be able to recruit as many members. That is basically a question mark because it is not clear exactly how one leads to the other. I would go one step further and say that that the explanation is especially necessary because logic seems to dictate the opposite result. I do not recall the terrorists citing detainees at Gitmo nor the use of harsh interrogations as part of their reason for flying planes into buildings. Of course, 9/11 predates those actions on our part so they could not have been part of the terrorist's attempt at justification. While the effect of reducing terrorists desire to strike us seems minute at best, restricting the ways in which our agents can gather intelligence has an obvious detrimental effect.

This type of 'Underpants Gnome offense' may be cover for a real reason that a person for what ever reason does not want to admit. Staying with the same topic; Obama may truly believe that harsh interrogation is torture and it is not acceptable for Americans to torture even if it would save lives. This is not meant as a criticism or to support that notion. Everyone has (or at least should) have a line they believe should not be crossed. Taking it to extremes, I would not support nuking Detroit to prevent a terrorist shooting spree in NYC. It is meant to show the 'offender' might be doing it intentionally to hide the real reason.

Summing this up a bit, we are left with two rather disheartening possibilities when people do not connect the dots committing an 'Underpants Gnome offense'. The first is that they do not know any or can not show a logical connection between their stated goal and their chosen course of action. The second is to cover the real reason they have because they think it would not be generally accepted.

To try to end on a positive note there is a third reason which is not a disheartening one. There may be some logical connection but the person forgot to or did not think they needed to connect the dots for people. The logic of the latter is that they believe the connection to be obvious enough as to not merit the explanation. Sorry to be a downer, but given the importance and complexity of these high level issues it seems the third reason is the least likely.


"The president's plan can briefly be described as follows. Phase One: Order Guantanamo closed. Phase Two: ? Phase Three: Close Gitmo!
Now take the administration's approach to the Middle East. Phase One: Talk to Iran, Syria, whoever. Phase Two: ? Phase Three: Peace!
Now Kim Jong Il has tested another nuke, and we're back at the familiar three-step. Phase One: Propose a "structure." . . .
Mr. Obama's energy policy goes something like this: Phase One: Inaugurate the era of "green" energy. Phase Two: Overturn the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Phase Three: Carbon neutrality!

Take any number of Mr. Obama's other initiatives. Rescue Detroit? Phase One: Set a national mileage standard for passenger cars of 39 miles per gallon and force auto makers to make the kind of cars that drove them to bankruptcy in the first place.

Reduce the deficit? Phase One: Approve $3.5 trillion in government stimulus, and then await the mythical Keynesian multiplier.

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