Monday, September 22, 2008

Opportunity Knocks!

Hmmm... maybe now would be a good time to revive the idea of privatizing Social Security. Don't you think so?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Uncommon Sense

My last post elicited several comments, most in person, from some liberals and a conservative, all defending common sense. The funny thing is, each of them had a different definition of what common sense was....

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Three Virtues That Lead to Bad Decisions

The recent Republican convention has caused me to think about how some of the values held up by the nominees and delegates can lead to poor decisions when used to drive policy. Three personal attributes that we Americans hold up as virtues can be particularly damaging:


Loyalty is necessary in a military context but can be counterproductive in a civilian one. Why? Because loyalty only comes into play when someone is obligated to do something that they fundamentally disagree with. After all, if one agrees with a course of action, there's no need for loyalty. Loyalty is used to keep members of a team marching in the same direction whether they agree with that direction or not.

This may be entirely appropriate and constructive when loyalty is earned rather than demanded. But when loyalty is demanded because it hasn't been earned, there's no rational reason that loyal behavior will lead to a good outcome. Rationally, someone with less knowledge should defer to someone with more. When someone with more knowledge defers to someone with less, because loyalty is demanded, the outcome can be catastrophic. One need look no further than Colin Powell's presentation to the UN for a clear demonstration of how unmerited loyalty can upend the proper relationship between someone who is informed and competent and someone who is not.

This is one of the basic dynamics that have led to the most prominent failures of the Bush administration: loyalty was the most important attribute to Bush, and it was demanded rather than earned. It was more important than competence, as demonstrated by the response to Hurricane Katrina and the inept handling of the Iraq war and reconstruction. It also prevented thoughtful deliberation and honest, informed feedback at those times when it was most needed; dissenting voices were absent, so decision-makers never benefited from hearing all sides of an argument.

This came to mind when reading about how Sarah Palin, as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, fired her Chief of Police because she felt she didn't have his unreserved loyalty. Staffing an administration with people who are unquestionably loyal to you is a sure prescription for group-think, for suppressing the kind of feedback and honest disagreement that would lead to better, more informed decisions.


One of the attributes that certainly appealed to Americans about Bush, and now about McCain and Palin, is toughness. All of them pride themselves on the strength to make tough decisions. By definition, a decision is only tough when it's unpopular. And, in some cases, it may be unpopular because it's wrong.

In these cases, one's self image as tough can make it hard, or impossible, to change one's mind when presented with new evidence. Toughness, inflexibility, and stubbornness are basically synonymous. Again, one need look no further than the Iraq war to see the results of decision making distorted by toughness. The fact that McCain and Palin share this trait may make them vulnerable to the same kind of inflexibility.

Common Sense

One of the delegates at the recent convention cited Palin's "small town values" as a reason to support her, and when asked what those values were, cited "common sense" as a prominent one. Americans love common sense. I think they believe that someone who operates on common sense is trustworthy.

There are several problems with common sense. An obvious problem is that it's a substitute for education. Nature abhors a vacuum, and common sense fills in where education is absent.

A second problem with common sense is that it's reductionist. It often relies on a few, basic principles, sometimes derived from religious belief or moral values, that fail to recognize the underlying tradeoffs and complexities that exist in the real world.

A third problem is that it's based on one's personal experience with the world, and thus is limited by the limits of that experience. It was once common sense, for example, that the sun revolved around the earth. We now know better, and the fact that the earth revolves around the sun is conventional knowledge. But evolution is currently running into the same resistance that the Ptolemaic universe once did, and probably for the same reasons. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have convincingly demonstrated the limits of human judgment, and the distortions of that judgment can be seen in the vast number of suboptimal decisions made in policy and economics, among others.

Again, one need look no farther than the Iraq war to see this in play. Common sense, to an American at least, would hold that one need only introduce democracy to a region and good things will happen. Bush's foray into Iraq failed to recognize the essential complexities of one of the most complicated parts of the world, and we will be paying the price for that for a long time.

Americans seem fundamentally suspicious of education, perhaps because they feel it will displace their highly valued common sense. They recognize that someone with more education than they have may be unpredictable to them, and thus untrustworthy. I think we can see this sentiment in the vilification of "elites" in the current campaign. But if anything, Americans should be suspicious of common sense, because it is as fundamentally incapable of grappling with the complexities of the world as our eyes are of watching atoms spin.


I don't include trust as a distorting virtue, but I do think that trustworthiness underlies all of the virtues that are. If someone is loyal, tough (therefore consistent), and uses common sense, they're more intrinsically trustworthy than someone who uses their superior education and mind. I wonder if our preference for trustworthiness over competence will, in the end, be the factor that holds us back in the world, as other nations embrace the opportunities that come with knowledge and better education.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Moral Authorities

How can President Bush chastise Russia for invading Georgia, after he himself so recently invaded a sovereign nation?

And how can he chastise other countries for human rights shortcomings, after his administration has engaged in torture, extraordinary rendition, and warrantless wiretapping?

How can politicians and pundits like Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Rush Limbaugh espouse family values after multiple marriages and, often, affairs?

How can Bill Bennett write a book called The Book of Virtues while gambling away several hundred thousand dollars?

And how can Sarah Palin press abstinence programs on the country despite the very visible evidence in her own family that they don't work?

The problem here is that our moral authorities have no moral authority.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Hypocrisy part 2

One of the things the federal census tracks is the balance of payments to the states. In general, the states that tend to vote democratic also tend to be net payers into federal coffers, while states that tend to vote republican tend to be net beneficiaries of federal payments. Ironic, no? Money being transferred from the states that most support federal programs to the states that advocate for small government? According to the most recent census figures, Alaska ranks seventh in the country in terms of how much money they receive from the federal government vs. how much they pay. (Virginia and Maryland are the top two because of the large numbers of federal employees, and federal paychecks, in those states.) So my question is, how can a state whose populace seems to pride itself on its independence and favors small government be so dependent on federal largess?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Buried Lede

From Peter Baker's New York Times Magazine feature article "The Final Days", on the last act of the Bush presidency, from page 4:

"'They’re friendly,' said Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican and McCain ally who has watched the two men up close. 'They don’t hang out together. I don’t think John’s ever been to Camp David. I think it’s respectful. President Bush respects Senator McCain, and I think Senator McCain respects the office of the presidency.'"


How come no one has pointed out that, of all the recent political sex scandals, the Democratic ones have involved consenting, heterosexual adults (Bill Clinton, Elliot Spitzer) while the Republican ones have involved homosexuality (Larry Craig, Ted Haggard, Jeff Gannon, Mark Foley...), soliciting minors (Mark Foley again), and teen pregnancy? How come no one has pointed out that families and areas with strong "family values" (read sexually repressive) have higher rates of teen pregnancy? Why isn't anyone drawing contrasts between Amy Carter and Chelsea Clinton, on one hand, and the Bush twins and Sarah Palin's seventeen year old daughter on the other? And why isn't anyone on the right questioning whether their focus on abstinence, faith, and marriage might be having exactly the opposite effect than the one they intend?

Supporters will say that Governor Palin's family should be off limits from the spotlight of politics. That would be fine, except that social conservatives are the ones who put the family in that spotlight in the first place. If they didn't want to impose their family-related values on the rest of us, I'd agree that private matters should be off limits. But they put that particular ball in play by supporting a sexually repressive social agenda, and they should be held responsible for the results when their own families fail to meet their own tests.