Monday, April 06, 2009

North Korea and the folly of polls

You frequently see politicians waving around poll results as a justification to engage in various public policy moves. Claiming the mantle of the will of the people they plod ahead with their schemes and accuse anyone who stands in their way of obstructing democracy. In a country that holds democracy sacred there can be few things less offensive.

The problem with this is at least two-fold. First, the people aren't well informed on most issues. Frequently they favor contradictory policies. People claim to support a balanced budget but also develop a white hot anger when favored government programs are placed on the chopping block. Americans supported the invasion of Iraq by a wide margin but then four years later decided it was a mistake. They also expressed their belief that the addition of U.S. troops to the country in 2007 did not contribute to increased stability when most experts believe that the surge was a success.

It should also be noted that people's opinions change over time. For example people are more open to the idea of gay marriage and marijuana legalization now than 20 years ago. Now, both may either be good or bad ideas, but they aren't good or bad ideas simply based on whether a majority of people approve of them or not.

The second point is that letting the people rule is not the sacred creed that many believe it to be. After all, the U.S. was established as a republic, not a democracy. The founding fathers were fearful of mob rule and put in place a number of barriers between politics and the people. It should be remembered that when the Constitution was first written there was no direct election of Senators and the electoral college elects presidents rather than the people. In the country's early years the right to vote was restricted to white males that owned property.

All of this brings me to the current situation with North Korea and a new poll that indicates more than half of the country favors a military response to Pyongyang's launch of a rocket over the weekend. I wonder how many of those that are so anxious to drop bombs on North Korea and potentially begin a war realize that the missile launch was a failure:
But looking at the launching from a purely technical vantage point, space experts said the failure represented a blow that in all likelihood would seriously delay the missile’s debut.

“It’s got to be embarrassing,” said Geoffrey E. Forden, a missile expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I can imagine heads flying if the ‘Dear Leader’ finds out the satellite didn’t fly into orbit,” he said, referring to the name North Koreans are obliged to use when speaking of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s reclusive leader.

...Analysts dismissed the idea that the rocket firing could represent a furtive success, calling the failure consistent with past North Korean fumbles and suggesting it might reveal a significant quality control problem in one of the world’s most isolated nations.
Let's think about how absurd this is. North Korea is an economic weakling with a half-starved population that can't even afford to turn the lights on at night. Their high-profile missile launch meant to attract world attention was a failure. In relative terms it's the equivalent of a 12 year old threatening Mike Tyson with a pop gun.

North Korea is a tragedy, not a threat. The only thing we should be dropping on the country are sacks of rice.

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