One of George W. Bush’s most glaring shortcomings as president was his utter disdain for expertise. Never one to read a position paper when a gut reaction would do, he despised all forms of expert opinion: he seemed to view book learning in much the same way he did diplomacy — as sissy stuff.
Thus far, at least, Barack Obama has been refreshingly different in this, as in so many other respects. Science is back baby! And brainy people now swarm the White House thicker than the vultures circling Michael Steele’s political head.
So why do I feel so uneasy?
Have you ever read “The Best and the Brightest”? It’s the story of how the brilliant people John Kennedy brought into the government — men like Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy — helped lead America into the nightmare of Vietnam. The moral, as Frank Rich noted a few months ago in making a very similar point, is that “The Brightest Are Not Always the Best.”
And so I find myself wondering: is it possible that Obama loves expertise a little too much, especially in the field of economics?
What got me thinking this way was his recent comment about blogs. I quoted him yesterday, but it bears repeating:
“Part of the reason we don’t spend a lot of time looking at blogs,” he said, “is because if you haven’t looked at it very carefully, then you may be under the impression that somehow there’s a clean answer one way or another — well, you just nationalize all the banks, or you just leave them alone and they’ll be fine.”
I have no problem at all with President Obama ignoring blogs — including this one (sniff, sniff). As I said yesterday, it would actually be damn poor judgment on his part to rely on them very heavily (although blogs, taken in small doses, could certainly be useful in providing a shortcut to thinking outside the White House bubble).
So yes, of course, it’s fine for Obama to ignore blogs. But is it just me, or was there perhaps a hint in his dismissive attitude toward non-experts that he’s become a bit starstruck? He’s surrounded himself with exceptionally gifted people and may rightfully take pride in his appointments. I just hope he doesn’t become too enthralled by (and deferential toward) their genius — especially the ones dealing with the economy.
I’m reminded of a story David Halberstam, the author of The Best and the Brightest, tells in the book:
Johnson, after his first Kennedy cabinet meeting, raved to his mentor, the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, about all the president’s brilliant men. “You may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say,” Rayburn responded, “but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”
Being smart and being right don’t always go together.
To be honest, I don’t trust economists. Or more to the point, I don’t trust them when they try to predict the future. As a trial lawyer, I deal with this a lot. Economists often testify in personal injury cases, offering opinions on the value of future economic loses.
Their work product can be impressive — at first glance anyway. You get a report that’s only a little shorter than the Bible (and often just as difficult to read), filled with brain numbing mathematical computations and heavy professional lingo, all pointing to the seemingly undeniable conclusion that the economist must not only be a genius, but also unquestionably right.
But a funny thing can happen when you ask a few questions. You’re apt to learn, first, all of those impressive calculations were actually the product of a computer program — purchased by the economist. All he or she had to do (for a four figure fee) was to fill in a few blanks. But the real payoff comes when you press further, peeling away the layers of pretense and taking the witness all the way back to the geneses of his or her opinion — the assumptions.
Future economic projections are always based upon assumptions made by the economist. And what you find, if you look closely, is that these assumptions are often little more than guesses — educated ones certainly — but guesses nevertheless. A guess as to the future rate of inflation. A guess as to future interest rates. Sometimes a guess as to future wage growth.
Now, let’s stop talking about economists testifying in lawsuits (they call that forensic economics), and talk, instead, about economists who advise presidents on how to fix a broken economy. And if you look closely enough at what they’re saying, you’ll eventually find pretty much the same thing as with their forensic brothers and sisters. Lots of math and big words, which in the end come down to a series of assumptions, a/k/a — pure ass guesses.
And sometimes they’re right. And sometimes they’re wrong.
If it sounds like I’m bashing the science of economics, I’m not. I have great respect for economists. I just happen to believe they make piss poor psychics. Barack Obama unquestionably needs skilled economists and monetary experts to advise him — people like Larry Summers (even if he is a pompous jerk) and Tim Geithner (even if they wouldn’t have been my first choices).
What he doesn’t need, however, is the mindset that these guys know all the answers, or even that there’s a very high probability that they’re right in their predictions for where the economy is going and how it will respond to any given intervention.
That is why, as I said in yesterday’s post, I’m so concerned with the lack of diversity in Obama’s economic team. It’s why I suggested he’d be well advised to give Paul Krugman (or one of the other barbarians at the gates) an hour (or even two) of his time. He needs to hear from a broader range of voices, including those who call for more robust responses to our economic woes than the ones he’s pursuing.
Then, fully informed, he, as the man we elected, must use his own best judgment in deciding what road to take, fully cognizant that his advisors — as brilliant as they may be — may nevertheless ultimately turn out to be dead wrong.
Because I have to tell you, everything I’ve seen so far gives me a hell of a lot more faith in Barack Obama’s powers of judgment than in those of all any of the brainy wonks who advise him.