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Known Unknowns

Known Unknowns

Watching Sean Hannity’s interview with Donald Rumsfeld last night reminded me of Rumsfeld’s “known- knowns, known-unknowns, and unknown-unknowns” statement during a press conference in 2002.  I use this construct in class to describe how to build a legal case (you build it around the known-knowns, just saved you about 50k in tuition):

“[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.  We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.  But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

The known-knowns are the things we usually argue over — we know them. The unknown-unknowns are more fun, but amount to speculation and often devolve into conspiracy theories.

Much more interesting to me are present day known-unknowns, things we know we do not know.  Focusing on policy issues, what are some known unknowns?

Let me start:

  • When we will reach the tipping point in national debt.
  • The number of years it will take us to recover from the increasing restrictions on offshore drilling.
  • Whether and on what conditions the Obama administration will resupply Israel in the event of a full-scale Mideast war.
  • Whether it will be too late to reverse Obamacare if it takes two years until the U.S. Supreme Court rules the mandate to be unconstitutional.
  • The number of jobs which will not be created because of the sweeping scope of pending regulations.


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Is Iran behind the current unrest in the Middle East and North Africa?

How long will it take us to recover from the damage done by Multiculturalism?

How long will it take for the US to re-establish a manufacturing base?

I would add a modifier to your third known-unknown. Will the US have sufficient reserves to supply Israel in the event of war? Last time we had to do that we had a large garrison force equipped to defend Europe and were able to move equipment relatively short distances. No longer the case, and after 10 years war what kind of condition is our equipment in?

I think I finally figured out how to comment here. I will share my actions with others who may be experiencing the same problem if this is posted.

Another known unknown is whether or not the sitting president is eligible for the job. Unknown is his past, records deliberately hidden, and that would qualify as a known unknown.

Will the the Egyptian revolution be like 1688 or 1789? Or will those old pros Omar Suleiman and Hosni Mubarak put a lid on things? Are food prices going to stabilize or continue to rise further, exacerbating instability in Egypt and the third world? If the second whose fault is it? Is central planning so full of all the various unknowns that it leads to blowback and catastrophic failure?

Foreign Policy

"At the simplest level there are two type of commodities: those for which people will riot and those that they will not. I'm no PhD in economics, but I doubt that higher prices in gold and silver will bring the masses out onto the streets. How about higher prices in wheat, soybeans, rice, and corn? Now we're talking serious riot potential. QE2 was supposed to stop the risk of deflation. Is there any deflation risk in the riot commodities? Here are a couple of examples. Soybean and corn one-year charts are below:"

"The riot commodities are going to command a lot of unfavorable attention over the next few months. The pressure will build on the Fed to curtail QE2, so riding the commodity trend has the danger that some morning the Fed announces an “Emily Litella — Never Mind Moment” and ends QE2, resulting in the first “Black Swan” moment of 2011."


Some other known-unknowns:

How soon before Iran completes their nuclear weapons development? (link:

What is the Obama administration's stance on Egypt?

Will the Republican-led house keep its Promise to America? (links: , , and )

Links are so you can verify how we "know" these "unknowns." *sigh*

@Deekaman #1 is a known-known, with the answer being yes, and your #3 proceeds from a false premise: the US has a great manufacturing base. We made more stuff in 2008, right up until the recession hit (link). The issue is that with modern manufacturing techniques and automation, that level of production requires a fraction of the workers that less production required a generation ago. Factories today are making more, but instead of hiring hundreds of low skilled blue collar workers, they are employing dozens of skilled ones. The "loss of manufacturing capability" is a canard pushed by the unions, the real issue is "loss of manufacturing jobs"-which is a problem, no doubt, but one that has different set of solutions (and if the solution doesn't involve large scale, single site or single industry employment, it's a problem for the unions, though not necessarily for the workers themselves, which is why unions push the "loss of capacity" deceit).

Running with what Minyanville said, today we heard that demand for corn has pushed US supplies to their lowest point in 15 years:;=topStories&pos;=8&asset;=&ccode;=

The story says higher projected orders from the ethanol industry. We have to make food into fuel because the idiots in Fantasyland DC won't let us extract fuel. Well, maybe we can turn something else into food… how about carbon credits?

Another known-unknown: this can't go on forever and whatever can't go on forever, ends. The unknown is when and how.

Will Rogers had a different take- "It ain't what we don't know that's the problem– its what we know -that ain't so."

Rumsfeld was much derided in the press for talking about what we know we know, what we know we don't know, and what we don't know we don't know. I always thought it was a pithy and memorable way to explain what he was talking about.

So we have the known-knowns, the known-unknowns and the unknown-unknowns, but what about the unknown-knowns?

"Faith is believing what you know ain't so." – Mark Twain

And the ideologs in this administration are more bulletproof than Superman when it comes to the truth.

From the socialist failures of Europe, Asia and Africa contrasted with Hong Kong to the current moment in the States contrasting California with Texas, their imperviousness to the truth is awe inspiring.

What has been forgotten are unknown knowns – those things that are known but have some how become unknown (at least to policy makers). These include: if we stop drilling for oil in this country, we will be more dependent on foreign oil; price ceiling leads to shortages; if we pay people money to burn food (think ethanol), there will be less food for people to eat; etc.

taleb nassim has made a living taking about unknown unknowns. There are Black Swans out there, events that will turn the world over for good or bad.
thinking about specifics isn't the point. prepare by being fit. be efficient, remember Adam Smith and understand human nature can't be changed.