Tristero --- Confusing expertise with authority

Confusing Expertise With Authority

by tristero

Frank Rich makes a fundamental error today. It's also a common error:
[Obama's] most conspicuous flaw is his unshakeable confidence in the collective management brilliance of the best and the brightest he selected for his White House team — “his abiding faith in the judgment of experts,” as Joshua Green of The Atlantic has put it...Obama has yet to find a sensible middle course between blind faith in his own Ivy League kind and his predecessor’s go-with-the-gut bravado.

By now, he also should have learned that the best and the brightest can get it wrong — and do...

Obama’s excessive trust in his own heady team is all too often matched by his inherent deference to the smartest guys in the boardroom in the private sector. His default assumption seems to be that his peers are always as well-intentioned as he is...

It’s this misplaced trust in elites both outside the White House and within it that seems to prevent Obama from realizing the moment that history has handed to him.
There's a lot going on in what I've quoted above, but I want to focus exclusively on just one, nearly hidden, problem caused by some rhetorical slippage on Rich's part.

From what I can tell, Rich wants to make the argument that Obama is listening to people who come from his own class, meaning Ivy League-educated with impressive mainstream resumes. I have no problem with that. I think it's true that Obama has a "misplaced trust in elites." But Rich elides some terms: he starts by describing the "experts" Obama relies on and ends up talking about the same people as "elites," as if the terms are in some sense equivalent. I have a lot of problems with that. Worse, Rich has a lot of problems with that. It leads him into sheer silliness.

By conflating elitism and expertise, Rich's first bad assumption is in thinking that the elites Obama is listening to are, in fact, experts. Clearly they are not. Or, to be more precise, while they may be expert in finance or oil spills, they are self-interestedly providing inexpert - ie, non-objective - information and advice to the president. Clearly, Obama needs to insist upon hearing from genuine experts - that is, from people who can be objective.* The notion that experts are elitists and can't be trusted is a canard. If good analysis and proposals comes from a professor teaching at the elite Princeton University - say his name is Paul Krugman - Obama should listen carefully. Ditto if the professor's teaching at a non-Ivy League university - NYU's Nouriel Roubini.** Rich is aware that there might be something wrong with the advice Obama's getting. But he's wrong to locate that blame in expertise. That is not the problem: the problem is that the advice Obama is getting is elitist and not that expert.

A second, and much worse, false assumption Rich makes is that there is some kind of contrast between Obama's "blind faith in his own Ivy League kind" - and Bush's "go-with-the-gut bravado." The first clue that this can't be a real dichotomy is that it is simply laughable for Rich to suggest that anyone, let alone a president of the United States, should be more Bush-like in his decision-making. In fact, it is quite clear from what Rich himself writes that the real problem here is that Obama already shares far too much with Bush's style.

Whereas Bush had a mis-placed faith in his infallible gut, Obama has a mis-placed faith in his infallible "Ivy League kind." Therefore, the real problem with both presidents is their over-reliance on faith-based decision-making, the classic fallacy of over-valuing authority. They are both behaving quite irrationally. The solution is for Obama to be more rational and seek more diverse experts. It's certainly not to be more like Bush - just ask Glenn Greenwald about that!!!

If Obama better recognized his fundamental error of mistaking high authority (and right-leaning centrism) with expert knowledge and advice, it would enable him to seek a wider array of opinions. Of course, in addition, Obama needs to listen to a wider variety of political advisers (or if you prefer, he needs to stop listening exclusively to "blue dogs" and corporatists).

To be sure, there certainly is a correlation between expertise and impressive resumes. You don't become head of an oil company if you know as much as I do about petroleum. However, the correlation is by no means exact. Not every financial expert is a billionaire; likewise, many rich people got that way because they simply were lucky.

If your job is to make complicated decisions based upon imperfect knowledge and reliance on others' expertise, it behooves you to consult different experts, then weigh their advice and fashion a plan. It is in the weighing and the overall planning that the decision-maker's expertise and experience plays a crucial role. No one who understands how to consistently make good decisions - sure, your gut can get lucky - would call such a process a "gut" call, in the sense used to describe Bush. It may be a quick decision, but the process has little to do with Rich's call for some bravado or guts. Rather, it is a job for a very thoughtful person.

There seem to be two major problems with Obama's decision-making. First is the incredibly restricted information he receives and values, limited to the right, the right of center, and the corporate right. There are many reasons for this, among them his own proclivities as a moderate, and his staff's.

The second major problem is Obama's reaction to the political climate. That climate is awful: A rampaging rightwing, a cowed and uninvolved center, and thoroughly marginalized liberals. Obama responds to this, not as we liberals would like, by setting an agenda but by trying to negotiate some common ground between all these players. Like every other liberal, I know that's impossible. Obama, whatever the reasons, doesn't think so. Perhaps he's worried the right really will tear the country apart. Perhaps it's just a personality thing and he's more trustworthy and less cynical than me. Whatever. As a result, nearly every liberal I know has grown increasingly frustrated with him (even as they make clear that they have no intention to vote anything but Democratic in '12, which most likely means Obama).

The answer to the first problem is to increase the number and range of experts. The solution to the second is to abandon so much as a semblance of bipartisanship and instead create policies, based on expert advice, that depend as little as possible upon the non-existent good faith of bad political actors.

The first solution is easy. The second, very difficult. But nothing useful will come from following Rich's advice. Obama doesn't need to react more from his gut, show bravado, be less "cool," or - worst of all - ignore genuine experts merely because they're they come from Harvard or Yale. Just the opposite.

Obama needs to be more liberal.


*There is a weird belief stalking our post-modern world, namely that objectivity is impossible. Without getting into a huge, messy argument, this is simplistic. It may be true that genuinely pure objectivity is difficult to obtain, if not impossible. So what? It is also the case that people can learn how to identify their most distorting biases, examine how those biases are affecting their decision making, and factor them out (or at least, moderate them). To a good extent, that is what the process of becoming an expert is all about.

Obviously, in a complex situation, experts will differ, no matter how objective they are. That is why the way out of the problems Obama is having is not, as Rich suggests, for Obama to become more Bush-like in his decision-making, but for Obama to consult more experts with a wider palette of viewpoints.

**Duh: Lousy ideas and lousy advice can come with apparently great academic pedigrees, eg Wolfowitz. That's my point: the institutional authority doesn't matter. The quality and variety of ideas does.