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August 25, 2005

Trapped in His Own Roach Motel


by Ann Berg

President Bush has shown a remarkable persistence in defending his ongoing Iraq mission. "Our troops know that they're fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere to protect their fellow Americans from a savage enemy. They know that if we do not confront these evil men abroad, we will have to face them one day in our own cities and streets," he intoned in his weekly radio address Aug. 20, 2005.

Bush apparently is an ardent subscriber to the Roach Motel Theory of Terrorism. It is simple enough for the smallest intellect to grasp Iraq is the poison bait to all worldwide terrorists, and the U.S. military's mission is to hunt, trap, and kill each and every one of them. Once accomplished, the troops will come home.

If the president were as familiar with economic theory as he is with fable invention, he could describe Iraq as a gross importer and consumer of a particular good, in this case labor. Terrorist workers, he might explain, having no potential employment in their home country, are trekking to Iraq where the industry is thriving. There, thanks to a U.S.-taxpayer-funded machine deployed to destroy all competitive threats to the exercise of state power, they will all die taking down the industry along with them.

The theory of course ignores some of the most basic tenets of economics. If a growth industry is appealing enough to a worldwide audience, it tends to establish itself quickly elsewhere in areas closer to pools of ready labor and targeted consumers, particularly when the start-up capital for such an industry is minimal. Industries exempt (legally or not) from compliance with the normal labyrinth of government regulation enjoy an additional competitive advantage in their ease of entry into the marketplace. Then too is the issue of product design and delivery. Anywhere implement or product manufacture is relatively cheap and simple and its delivery not overly encumbered, industries can take root. Should any British citizen be surprised at the Leeds phenomenon, when the London bombers could fund their simple operation from the paternalistic payments of the British welfare state, produce their lethal devices from local stores, and hand deliver their final product of death and trauma to their targeted audience via a subsidized public transportation network?

Of course, if Bush were to frame terrorism in economic rather than allegorical terms, that might expose another dangerous flaw in his Roach Motel Theory the potential value-added component resulting from re-export. This principle would apply when terrorists survive military engagement and carry on-site job skills to another operational base. Or, in this global world of information-sharing, surviving terrorists could merely aid the industry novices by way of instant electronic tutoring in the standard areas of business expertise i.e., combating competitive threats, increasing the labor pool, and developing more sophisticated tools/products and delivery systems. Most importantly, repeated and diverse experimentation in Iraq could help focus industry debate on how to maximize the return on capital in terms of both fundraising and achieving political goals.

However abhorrent or illegitimate, terrorism does not differ significantly from many emerging global industries or enterprises viewed from a structural or trade-flow perspective. Unlike mature multinationals that suffer under the weight of legacy costs and burdensome regulation, it resembles other emerging industries that have flexible, cheap (or unpaid) labor pools, local supply chains, creative financing, and product solutions customized to the local area.

Unfortunately, the president will not likely choose an economic lens through which to view an industry he's been spectacularly successful at stoking. This is a president who fired his chief economic advisor Larry Lindsey for putting a conservative $200 billion price tag on the war (his other advisors predicted $60 billion or even self-financed). His knowledge of economics and finance is seemingly limited to the world of fundraisers where he speaks and they give and it works magically every time. So Bush is trapped in his own Roach Motel. He must continue defending the disgraceful ongoing slaughter in Iraq with repetitive gibberish, and he must turn a blind eye to the blowback on Western soil, because the cold hard truth of what he's spawned can be neither fathomed nor spoken.

 

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Ann Berg has spent a 30-year career in commodities and capital markets as a trader, consultant, and writer. While a commodity futures trader and Director of the Chicago Board of Trade, she advised foreign governments, NGOs (the United Nations, World Bank), think tanks (Catalyst Institute), and multinational and foreign corporations on a variety market-related issues. She was also a frequent conference speaker at international derivatives markets forums. In recent years, she has contributed articles to several commodities/capital markets publications, including Futures Magazine, Traders Source, Financial Exchange, and the Financial Times editorial page. Berg is also an artist. She is currently working on a body of work entitled The Unknown Unknowns – The Things You Don’t Know You Don’t Know, which explores U.S. national security policy.

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