Sunday, August 07, 2011

Reality Based Community?

I was struck by a recent post to a NYT blog on the subject of "What Happened to Obama." The author is identified as a psychology professor. His thesis is that Obama should have told a story to the American people  that made sense of what happened. The story he should have told is the standard left of center view of who did what and was at fault. No mention of the fact that the collapse started in an industry dominated by two giant firms, both created by the federal government, both (along with private firm) long pressured by politicians of both parties to make it easier for people to buy houses with borrowed money.

Three things struck me about the piece. The first was that depended on the author's opinions about subjects in which he had no expertise—in at least one case, in which his factual belief was strikingly false ("a deficit that didn’t exist until George W. Bush gave nearly $2 trillion in tax breaks largely to the wealthiest Americans and squandered $1 trillion in two wars." I suppose he could mean that there was at least one post-war year in which the budget was in surplus—but that would require him to care about facts, not stories.) He simply took for granted, as almost everyone on his side does, the 1960's Keynesian story that deficits reduce enemployment—despite the fact that the predictions the administration made based on that theory have not turned out to be true.

The second thing was the confidence with which he wrote. He has no doubt that his opinions on subjects in which he has no professional expertise are correct—presumably because they fit his political views and those of the people he knows. He probably does not even know that there are professionals in the field, including ones with Nobel prizes, who are skeptical of the economic theories he takes for granted.

The third and most interesting was the focus on "story." As he put it, "in similar circumstances, Franklin D. Roosevelt offered Americans a promise to use the power of his office to make their lives better and to keep trying until he got it right."

It apparently did not occur to him that reality matters—that if you give the patient the wrong medicine he may die, even if you have a good story about why it is the right medicine. It apparently did not occur to him that the outcome of the policies FDR followed was the longest and worst depression in U.S. history. Which might have had something to do with the relation between FDR's story and the reality it claimed to describe.

Hence the title of this post. The blogger in question apparently does believe what some unnamed Bush official is asserted to have claimed—that one makes one's own reality. If you only have a good enough story ...  .


At 1:18 PM, August 07, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The famous "reality based community" remark was about trying to change things versus adapting your policies to current conditions (the latter being the "reality based" approach). Nothing to do with reality versus fantasy or reality versus perception or whatever.

At 1:35 AM, August 08, 2011, Anonymous Simon said...

Reminds me of that other professor who thought he would make Democrats triumph by 'framing' the debate and by renaming taxes 'membership fees'.

Also reminds me of the global warming activists who, after years of feeding us images of dying polar bears, say their approach has been too 'cerebral'.

At 4:49 PM, August 08, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paul Krugman, who is an "expert" in economics and has a Nobel Prize in the field too, writes stuff like this all the time. Why wouldn't the psychology professor be entitled to self-assurance since his thoughts track (or are received from) a Nobel prize-winner's?

At 1:47 AM, August 09, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keep in mind that many of these professors' salaries are paid by the government and have little chance of gainful employment outside of their world. Why would they bite the hand that feeds them by providing objectivity to their research?

At 1:25 PM, August 09, 2011, Blogger $9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

I'm charmed by your newly coined term "enemployment". Trade hawks will deploy it to describe manufacturing in China for export to the US.

To be fair to your target, Bush did take office under projected Federal budget surpluses that turned to deficits. GWB's apologists, if any, could mention the dotcom bust & financial contraction, etc.

At 1:31 PM, August 09, 2011, Blogger $9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

@ Simon:

Steve Pinker reviewed your framessor here.

Odd little story: before I heard of the dad, I attended honors classes with Lakoff's son, whose brilliance convinced me not to chase a PHD. No matter how hard I worked, I could not originate the kind of ideas that he seemed to spontaneously offer. He was a great kid, besides.

At 6:37 PM, August 09, 2011, Anonymous RKN said...

I didn't find the presentation overly self confident, and doubt I would ever fault a writer for presenting his opinions confidently. Delivering opinions wrapped in self doubt would not make for the kind of story he thinks people want (need) to hear.

The author may not be aware of the skeptics of theories he supposedly takes for granted, but I bet he's aware of Krugman, also a Nobel Prize winning economist who I doubt would disagree with his opinions.

I even think there's some basis for agreement with one of his concluding hypotheses to explain why Obama didn't turn out as expected:

A second possibility is that he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history. Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted "present" (instead of "yea" or "nay") 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.

At 1:10 AM, August 10, 2011, Anonymous Simon said...

A delightful compilation of similar quotes in Reason Magazine:

"If Only Americans Weren't So Goddamned Stupid We Wouldn't Have to Send Them to Re-Education Camps"

At 1:20 AM, August 10, 2011, Anonymous Simon said...

Krugman is of course an excellent example of insularity. Parts of the left seem to believe that, no matter what the issue is,

1) All experts agree
2) The expert consensus coincides perfectly with leftist political opinion
3) If you disagree with leftist political opinion, you must be stupid, uninformed, or corrupt
4) If the left doesn't win politically, it can only mean that they have not sufficiently emotionalized or dumbed down their message

At 3:53 AM, August 12, 2011, Anonymous And said...

Someone doesn't understand the difference between "politics" and "being right".

At 5:55 PM, August 18, 2011, Blogger Eric Rasmusen said...

The post is quite correct-- the psych prof is amazingly arrogant, or perhaps amazingly naive (that is, he hasn't ever heard of anybody except corporate bogeymen disagreeing with his story).

But there's another amazing thing to add. Isn't the story he says Obama should be telling exactly the same story that Obama IS telling? That is--"it's all Bush's fault, plus Wall Street's, and you need to let me spend and regulate a lot to fix things". So what he really ought to be saying is that Obama told the right story but, unlike psych profs, didn't have the talent to carry off a Big Lie.

At 8:02 AM, September 08, 2011, Blogger neil craig said...

Reality matters but so does perception. If your patient dies through your negligence having a good story is the best way to stay in practice.

Perception matters much more in politics than in medicine because there are no accepted failure standards and you are usually in power for years before the patient turns blue. If Obama had had a competent predecessor he might have got through a first term ok. On the other hand he wouldn't have won in the first place then.


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