Which is to say, the outcome of last night’s “debate” really didn’t reveal much new about either candidate, did it? At least not to anyone who’s actually been paying attention for any length of time. The feller who is supposedly just the most gosh-darned brilliant person who’s ever so far debased himself as to condescend to accept the same office Washington and Lincoln held (though not quite so ineffably sublimely masterfully as the current feller has done) turns out to be an inarticulate, arrogant, sneering, stumble-bumpkin when he’s not reading some 30 year-old’s word from a Telepromptr. And the other feller is someone who knows how to take a stack of data and tell you where your firm is going off the rails, and make a bunch of working-the-levers recommendations. The one feller’s arguments rested a bit much for comfort on trotting out bogey-men (Trump! etc.); the other’s, on the I’m going to do X, Y, and Z.
Errmmmm, a bit of news for both of them: Neither one “is going to do” a damned thing. Either will at most to propose some things to Congress which, by the time it’s done larding it with pork, carving out exceptions for its pet constituents/donors, and pasting sympathetic children’s names all over the bills (e.g. “Little Patti’s Budget Reconciliation, Cosmic Justice, and Omnibus Prevention of Playground Bullying Act of 2013”), will if we’re lucky accomplish zero. If we’re not lucky it will just make it all worse (cf. Dodd-Frank). Well, there is a slight difference; if the one feller wins he just won’t bother with that silly ol’ outdated Congress thing anyway. Flash of pen and another ream or seven of executive orders come down. Mandatory birth control irrespective of religious belief? That’ll seem tame in a second OPromptr term.
Much as it pains me to admit that any publicly touted slogan is actually correct, the “Character Counts” tag has it right. No one, not these candidates, not any of the pundits, not any voter, not any illegal voter — no one knows precisely what challenges the winner is going to be confronted with over his term. We can be fairly confident of some of them: a nuclear-armed Iran; a rising tide of Islamofascism; a bankrupt entitlement system; a tax code that is pretty good at punishing success but not so good at funding the government; an entrenched bureaucracy that is likely to do a good deal of whatever the hell it wants no matter what any particular president says (we should never forget how much of the damage done to the Bush 43 presidency was accomplished by leaked information from outfits like the CIA, information that was leaked precisely to undermine the president and his agenda). But in truth no one really knows. Remember when George W. Bush’s Big Legacy was going to be No Child Left Behind? When we’d got out of the nation-building business?
And it’s there, in the area of character rather than competence, that neither candidate is without genuine cause for concern. The incumbent is . . . well, he got his political start (as in his very first fundraiser) and his early mentoring from a fellow who in his youth “declared war” on the U.S. and who with his friends actually set bombs which actually blew up and actually wounded and killed people (including fortunately some of those friends). This fellow — who happens to be one of OPromptr’s few Old Guard associates whom he’s never thrown under the bus — to this day remains sneeringly proud of what he and his buddies did, and has in fact since his protegé’s election said in so many words that (i) he doesn’t regret what they did, and (ii) in fact he rather thinks they should have done a great deal more of it. This president is a fellow one of whose first actions in office was to travel abroad to slime his country in a part of the world in which that is one of the unforgivable sins. All he bought himself was contempt, for himself and for us. This is a feller who’s run an administration marked by truly extraordinary corruption: $535 million “loaned” to a company that was already going under, but was owned by a major campaign bundler, and the “loan” was subordinated to the owner’s equity; complete failure to investigate Jon Corzine, (still) a major campaign bundler who personally presided over what may be the single largest private theft in modern history; leaning on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (illegally, the statutes specifically prohibit such outside influences) to gut the pensions of the thousands of non-union employees of Delphi, while topping off the UAW pensions of ditto; and let’s not forget Operation Fast and Furious, in which the U.S. government, with approval at the highest levels, got into the illegal gun-running business into a neighboring country, without that country’s knowledge or consent. And then we have the more purely political corruption: a senior advisor accepts $100,000 from a shady foreign power to make two — two! — speeches right before he takes office as such advisor; the president himself offers to sell out national interests for political gain, begging Putin, who still thinks of himself as a Chekist, to go easy on him until after the election, after which he’ll have “more flexibility” to give him what he wants; the administration deep-sixes an oil pipeline through areas already criss-crossed with such lines, and by curious coincidence one of his most prominent supporters just happens to own a railroad a large portion of whose business is hauling oil from one of the areas that would have been served by that pipeline; the administration defies court orders to process and issue off-shore drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico, while yet another billionaire supporter invests in the much deeper-water Petrobras field off the coast of South America. And so on. This may be just about the most personally corrupt administration since Harding’s.
On the other hand, the other fellow, while so far as is known a sterling fellow personally, shares some frames of reference that I don’t find wholly assuring. He’s a manager. That’s good. It’s also not so good, because the management of a firm, or a collection of firms, or even a state of the union, is a task lesser by quantum orders of magnitude than somehow keeping an enterprise like the U.S. federal government out of the ditch. Managers, at least those I’ve known, have a susceptibility of varying strength to see the world in terms of one-to-one (I know I’m over-simplifying here) correlations of Problem:Solution. The smaller the enterprise, and the more limited the scope of its mission, the more valid that framework is. General Motors can “solve” a problem with much greater comprehensiveness and predictability than, say, Massachusetts. The latter can do so much more so than, say, the Department of Defense. The DoD can do so more easily than the fellow hunkered down in that Oval Office trying to make sense of it all.
Managers, or rather people who think of themselves as managers, are highly exposed to the temptations of hubris. It is so easy to lose sight of the fact that there are in fact no “solutions” but only trade-offs. It is also easy to forget that what Hayek identified as the knowledge problem never goes away. The more you attempt to accomplish the more information becomes necessary to make the best choice and avoid the worst. The problem is that the more information you need the less likely you are to obtain a great enough proportion of it that you can avoid making a bloomer.
A guy who owns a factory making, say, bass boats, is going to have to make decisions in the absence of complete information. That’s part of life and certainly part of business. But he’s going to come a great deal closer, a great deal more often, to achieving a sufficient level of knowledge relevant to his decisions than the CEO of Ford will (the Edsel was the most heavily consumer-researched vehicle in history on its introduction). The guy owning the bass boat factory will have a much less difficult time predicting the outcome of his management decisions than his Ford counterpart, and both of them will have a cake-walk compared with some guy in the Oval Office. People who think of themselves as “managers,” especially if they’re phenomenally talented, are much more exposed to overlooking what they don’t know, what they in fact can’t predict.
I will offer an illustration that is precisely on point. OPromptr’s modest self-assessment notwithstanding, he’s probably nowhere near the brightest guy ever to win that office. The strongest contender that I can think of for that honor was an internationally famous engineer, whose services were actively sought literally all over the planet. He was the last president born in a log cabin, an orphan, and he’d become fabulously wealthy off his chosen occupation. Working for the Red Cross he’d successfully coordinated the feeding of the entire civilian population of an occupied nation in the middle of combat operations, through a sea blockade and behind “enemy” lines, for years. He’d been Secy of Commerce during a rapidly expanding economy. He never met a problem he couldn’t solve.
His name was Herbert Hoover. For a decent overview of how he did in responding to the 1929 crash, and just how badly out of his depth he was (and never seemed to realize, more than a little like OPromptr), I highly recommend Amity Schlaes’s The Forgotten Man. It’s an economic history of the Great Depression, from its roots in the late Coolidge administration, through Hoover’s bumbling, to Roosevelt’s disastrously driving the stake ever deeper. Executive summary of thesis: The 1929 crash was a much over-due market correction, which produced a recession. Hoover’s fumbled response morphed a recession into a depression, and Roosevelt’s socialistic and ham-fisted mismanagement and machinations turned a depression into the Great Depression. She does a particularly good job at explaining the depression-within-a-depression of 1937, a point that lefties like Krugman never quite seem to get around to explaining away.
So my worry with OPromptr is that I have no confidence at all where his loyalties lie, and so far as is known there is no level of political or personal corruption in his associates and his political allies which he will not cheerfully endorse, subject only to the requirement of keeping the dollars flowing. My worry with Romney is that he’ll turn out to be another Hoover.
No amount of “debate” is going to change either of these leopards’ spots, and one of the is going to be the next president.
Why yes, thank you; I would like another drink.