Taking things personally

I’m not thrilled with the outcome of this election. I believe Trump will harm America’s interests, its ideals, its place in the world, and many of its people. Many people who voted for him, who are suffering now, will receive no promised relief, and many new people will likely be immiserated. It’s bad, very bad.

But I’m almost embarrassed to say that there is another, more personal reason I detest Trump: his absolute disdain for professionals, facts, and details, for consideration of others’ interests, for a qualitative and quantitative weighing of costs and benefits to various winners and losers. In short: he is a policy anti-analyst, and people love him for it. I am a policy analyst, and his type are my natural enemy.

I have a degree from an institution who’s motto is “Speaking Truth to Power.” I hold that motto dear, as I do the hope that when presented with “truth,” the powerful, will, in good faith, integrate such information and act on it.

Before Trump there was already ample evidence that policy analysis was not getting much traction. I have even written before about how policy analysis itself has become debased, leading to its total disregardability. Corporate communications departments seem to employ the lion’s share of “policy people,” and anyone with an agenda and a few bucks can generate realistic looking “policy analysis.”

In further evidence of the weakness of policy analysis, I have heard the current and former deans of the policy program where I got my degree wonder out loud why more graduates of our program did not end up in leadership positions. The answer, it seems to me, is rather obvious. First, the pathway to modern political leadership is indifferent to whether you know what you are talking about, or if you work diligently to maintain objectivity and an open mind. Policy skills are simply no help. Worse, the temperament that draws someone to the application page of a policy program (plus a few years of his or her life) is probably negatively correlated with power-seeking and leadership.

But this election was something completely new, at least to my generation. Knowing exactly what Trump stood for, many people voted for him anyway, in what amounts to a stunning rebuke of technocratic analysis in favor decision-making by ideology and “common sense.” It was a vote for George W. Bush’s famous “gut-based” style taken to a level that I suspect would give even W indigestion.

Furthermore, Mr. Trump has been assembling a cabinet comprised almost entirely of yes-men and ideologues. These are not curious people. They are policy anti-analysts as much as Trump himself.

Power, it seems, has a lot to say to Truth, and we’ll be hearing all about it in the coming months and years.

So, now, driven into the wilderness, what is the next move for those who prefer reality-based policy? Practically, speaking, retreating to liberal states and organizations is probably the short-term answer — an unavoidable step if policy analysts want to continue to remain employed. However, in the long term we must advance. How?

I can think of two projects that seem worthwhile to me:

First, policy analysts must somehow, as a group, figure out a way to separate hackery from serious analysis, and to make that separation readily apparent to the most casual observer. I don’t know what form that would take. Professional certification? Peer review? Code of conduct? This will be hard, because the ideologues and their paid spokespeople have become masters at painting anybody who disagrees with them as just as interested as they are, turning every conversation into a “both sides do it.”

Second, policy analysts must put aside their cherished memo-writing skills and deep love of complexity, and learn to convey their results differently to different groups. For the electorate at large, it’s time to master the soundbite, and sadly, the Tweet. This will hurt, because real situations are complex, and soundbites cannot properly convey a complex truth. I’ll admit, I have no idea how to do this, but I fear that is part of our collective problem. Maybe graduate policy training should include not only memo-writing, but all manner of modern “propaganda:” billboard, bumper sticker, lawn sign, protest sign, tweet, Facebook post, newspaper op-ed, blog post, 30 second radio blip, 3 minute TV interview, etc. Policy analysis must learn to fit on a smartphone screen.

Anybody else have some good ideas?

Total War?

Mitch McConnell famously said his party’s “number one priority is to make this president a one-term president.” That was in October of 2010, nearly two years after Obama was elected. However, there is pretty good evidence that Republicans plotted an agenda of obstruction from day one.

They pursued a strategy of “total war,” not yielding or compromising on any of Obama’s agenda. How did that work out for them? Well, with today’s perspective, it looks pretty good. R’s in deep red places were rewarded. R’s in purple places did not too bad, certainly nothing crushing. And of course the presidency speaks for itself. Total war did result in significant collateral damage, though: no compromise, no governance — essentially reduced performance of our institutions and the commensurate reduced faith in them to solve problems.

So far, Democrats have gone along with the standard rhetoric of accepting the will of the people, yadda yadda. Which I think for now is fine.

Should liberals adopt a policy of total war?


  • Will probably be effective in stopping/slowing R agenda
  • Will rally base and, potentially, energize party. Nobody likes a bully, but nobody likes people who let bullies roll over them, either.
  • Negotiating in good faith while your opposition as a total war philosophy results in a “ratcheting” effect, whereby when your in power, you get nowhere, and they’re in power, they somewhere.
  • The R’s have already shown their willingness to pursue this approach, so it’s not like D’s holding back will stop them from doing it the next time D’s are in power.

  • Obstruction generally at odds with Democratic principles of governance. Or maybe blocking bad policy is good enough for a minority party?
  • Compromise is the essence of governance, and by shunning it, we validate the idea that compromise is bad.
  • It encourages the same behavior from your opposition if/when you gain power again.

I seriously am not of one mind on this issue. Everything I know about policy says total war is beyond bad. But what I’m learning of politics makes me think it might be the only path forward. Furthermore, it may be that most of the damage from the total war approach may already have been done, which is tragic, but there may not be much to lose from pursuing such a strategy.

On the other hand, this might be a decent short- and medium-term strategy, but as faith in government to solve problems and improve life is kind of core to D thinking, it might be a very bad long-term strategy.

Really, I dunno.

Voices, ideas, and power

So, a day or so ago I was discussing the problems facing a democracy when a group of people, previously able to control outcomes with their vote, lose power. They may, not getting what they want democratically, turn to undemocratic approaches — the dangerous last gasp of a majority group becoming a minority.

Apparently, it turns out that that is not a problem we will have to deal with soon.

But it is with some irony that, tables turned, am today thinking about the limits of democracy. That was not on my mind yesterday morning.

Clearly, I need to come to grip with the fact that I and many of my friends were not hearing a lot of voices, or if we heard them, we dismissed them as uninformed, ignorant, and potentially irrelevant in the grander scheme of things. That is wrong for at least two reasons. First, duh, you end up losing. Each voice comes with a vote attached. But also, it just isn’t OK to dismiss people, even “bad” people. My main weapon against the Trump phenomenon of the last year was utter derision. That made me feel better (and I’m not giving it up) but it didn’t help stop him, and who knows, maybe it even helped fuel the response we saw last night?

If voices cannot and should not be ignored or somehow put on the sidelines, I don’t think the same goes for ideas. Ideas can vary from the brilliant to the disastrous, and we desperately need some way to sort them and then to make them stay where they belong. I’m not talking about censorship. Again, that’s focusing on voices. I’m talking about finding a way to make sure bad ideas are clearly, obviously so to everyone.

This has been a problem since the beginning of time, and it is clear that we are not very close to solving it. Back in olden days we had a system like this:

good idea bad idea
king likes happens, yay happens, disaster
king dislikes does not happen, opportunity lost nothing happens, ok

This turns out not to be fantastic system for decision-making, so we switched over to this:

good idea bad idea
people like happens, yay happens, disaster
people dislike does not happen, opportunity lost nothing happens, ok

This is much better, as people should generally like things that are good, or at least the people who have to deal with the consequences are the same ones making the decision. But if you believe that idea popularity and idea quality are not strongly correlated, it still leaves a lot to be desired.

Well, idea popularity and idea quality are not particularly well correlated. This is something that the Framers would have taken as prima facie obvious. The technology of the day would not have allowed for direct democracy, but they would not have wanted it anyway. They discussed this at length and put plenty of checks into the system to make sure runaway bad ideas do not gain power. Most of the time, in fact, I tend to think they put in too many checks. (That I suddenly feel different today says what?)

Well, my theory is that we relied on extra-governmental institutions: newspapers, intellectuals, clergy, to help pre-sort ideas. The most hideous ideas were put in the trash heap long before they became birdies whispering in candidates ears. I grew up in a world where it appeared that elites had pretty good power over ideas. They could not kill them, of course, but they could push them out of certain spaces, and that was good enough to keep them out of the mainstream and the ballot box.

That’s over. Unless the intellectually motivated, the curious, the skeptical, the open-minded, the thoughtful, the trained, the expert, the conservative, somehow reassert power over ideas, things are going to get worse.

How do we do it?