Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Affairs and graft are the predicates of progress

From Obama Stayed Out of the Swamp, and That Hurt Him by Megan McArdle.

McArdle is a libertarian with a strong penchant for analysis and logical argument. I have long been a fan of her work. She was, initially, an Obama supporter and has been quite strong in her reservations about and opposition to Trump. Her column presents an argument, the main point with which I agree - that Obama was less effective than he might have been because he was not a normal deal-making politician.

I have made the same point a number of times. He was really good at winning elections but had no administrative experience and no record of negotiation, deal-making, and actual achievements. He had a marked disinclination to do deals in which everyone might win something and no one would win everything. While this was clearest in his interaction with Republicans, I heard the same thing from Democratic friends and read similar assessments from the Democratic press in Washington.

He invested little or no time in cultivating relationships with his own party in Congress and no time in the minutiae of legislation. He had ideas and when Congress couldn't or wouldn't pass them, he simply resorted to executive orders where possible.

McArdle puts it like this:
People really expected a new and better sort of politics to attend his administration. And as he leaves us, it seems worth assessing how that went.

The obvious answer is, “Not nearly as well as Obama and his supporters expected.” The obvious question is, “Why not?” One answer is that Obama and his supporters were expecting too much from a single human being. Another, I think, is that many of the things that we loved about him -- those that seemed genuinely desirable, even admirable -- turned out not to be very good qualities in a president.

It seems safe to say that no other president in our lifetime has attracted quite the same frenzy of admiration from a certain professional class. We loved him because he is, well, us: bookish and somewhat introverted, fonder of white papers and technocratic planning than backroom dealmaking and rubber-chicken grip-and-grins. That gave him genuine strengths as a president.
I would pick at details, but I can broadly agree with this. And I think the various polls are supportive of this construction as well. He carried himself with dignity (though behaviors could often be petty), he gave well-crafted speeches, he was a dapper dresser, he clearly was a family man. All good attributes. And the polls show that he attracted usually at least 50%, often more, people who essentially liked him as a man while large majorities were disappointed or disapproving of his policies and the outcomes.

Where I diverge from McArdle is in terms of the implications of Obama's management style. She says:
Obama’s policy-making was, as these things go, extremely clean. I’m not saying it was good, mind you; that’s an argument for a different day. But there was a lot more evidence-based policy-making, and less wildly illogical “don’t just stand there, do something!” exhibitionism, than you normally see. And we saw far fewer "you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” trades.

As a result, most of his scandals were minor and at best weakly tied to the White House. Because where do scandals normally come from? Helping your political friends with either legislation or jobs. Obama rocketed upward through politics so fast that he didn’t pick up the faint residue of grimy dealmaking that glows from the skin of most politicians, nor the cadre of grasping hangers-on who usually surround them.

But to make policy work, you need politics. And politics is not about white papers. It is about making unsatisfactory deals and calling in favors from your friends, friends you usually made by helping them out with an unsatisfactory deal of their own. An intellectual approach to policy-making that tried to bypass those unseemly details, it turned out, didn't necessarily result in good policy.
I have three reservations about this line of thought.

First - McArdle treats policy-making as an exercise in arriving at the findable answer. I think that is broadly incorrect. Yes, we want to leverage knowledge as far as it will go, but in most cases, the challenge is that knowledge is insufficient and our goals are mixed and self-contradictory. There is no answer to be discovered and implemented. There are only compromises with reality (the gap between what we do know and what we need to know) and compromises with each other (because of our differing goals).

Second - Yes, we want a clean process, but we want also want positive outcomes. Good processes without good outcomes is still a failure.

My third reservation is that there is an implication that because there were no scandals of flesh and venality, there were no scandals at all. I discussed this a couple of weeks back in No scandals? Different, perhaps, but not none.

I would make the argument that Obama managed down the number of fleshy and venal scandals but that the scandals he did generate were much more consequential because they were scandals of power and governance. And they were a direct consequence of his inability to negotiate and bargain.

By avoiding negotiating with his allies and his opponents, he certainly avoided the "faint residue of grimy dealmaking that glows from the skin of most politicians." But in order to get anything done, particularly after the first two years when his policies led to the loss of Congress for his party, he had to corrupt the system by circumventing Congress (as the voice of the people), circumventing the law (hobbling the Inspector Generals, going after whistleblowers, and using the IRS to undermine his opponents), and arrogating powers to the Executive not supported by the Constitution (see the high failure rate of his cases before the Supreme Court and the volume of executive orders.)

Ours is a system of checks-and-balances designed to ensure that governance is achieved with the consent of the governed and much of Obama's administration was spent in undermining and avoiding those checks-and-balances. That is not a partisan issue, that is a citizen's issue. We don't want a corrupted system and we don't want corrupt individuals but the corrupted system is far more dangerous than corrupt individuals.

In sum, I think McArdle is turning a blind eye by defining corruption as only that of the flesh and wallet. She does allude to the broader issue without actually analyzing it with clarity.
The Obama administration didn’t think that way; all it thought about was the principle. In some sense, that’s really admirable. In another, it’s completely lunatic.

Arguably, this is why we can all now enjoy the next four years of President Trump. Some of these rules convinced evangelical voters that they were under existential threat from the left. I’ve heard from a number of them who said that the only reason they voted for him, despite their loathing of everything he stands for, is that he, at least, would not actively try to legislate their communities, their schools, and their way of life out of existence.
She makes some strong points in her concluding paragraphs.
I suspect that Obama fell prey to the worst delusion that we bookish intellectuals cherish, which is that History has a side, and we’re on it. Somehow, this Marxist chestnut survived its explosive refutation in the fall of the Soviet Union, and it has had a home in left-wing circles for the last eight years.

The culture wars were over, and their side had won; Republicans were on their way to becoming a regional rump party, confined to the South. When History is protecting your right flank, you don’t worry much about overextending your advance.


Politics is the art of creating winners and losers, and getting some of the losers to vote for you anyway. The basic tools of this trade are, for want of a better word, tawdry: shameless pandering and cheerful hypocrisy, sucking up and selling out.

The fact that Obama seemed above this made him an attractive figure to those of us who hated politics-as-usual. But as we enter our ninth year of politics-as-unusual, it’s fair to wonder which sort of politics really occupies the moral high ground.
Megan McArdle is by no means a Marxist. By-and-large, outside of a few fringes in academia and elsewhere, no one is.

And yet the optimistic conceit, tracing back through Marx to Plato, remains common across segments of the the left, center and right. The belief that we can engineer people towards perfection, that there is a static optimal outcome, an answer which ensures happiness and prosperity everywhere and for all. But that Platonic/Marxist belief is the launch pad that always leads to authoritarianism because if there is a single and right answer, then anyone who disagrees with that answer is wrong, evil and in the out-group to be re-educated, ostracized, exiled or destroyed.

Put me in the camp who believe there is great good in humans but tragic flaws as well and that we progress by participative engagement, in fits and starts towards some better emergent order. Yes, there are failures and affairs and graft and corruption along the way. We are human. But we discover the better future together and create it together. We don't ever find it through the imposition of predetermined "right" answers from figures of authority.

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