Wait For It

For the last few years the message we’d heard from our relatively liberal media is about how powerful is the U.S. president and how important are leader motives in determining policy outcomes.  Specifically, we’ve heard that U.S. outcomes are bad because of Bush’s despicable motives [added: and incompetence] — Bush has personally destroyed Iraq, New Orleans, the global environment, the deficit, oil and food prices, drug prices, the housing market, the mortgage industry, civil rights, and so on.

Odds are we will soon have a president Obama, and with him the outcomes won’t be much different – U.S. presidents don’t control that much after all.  So we will soon hear the media talking a lot more about how limited is presidential power and how important is other context in determining outcomes — Obama tried but was thwarted by congress, foreigners, interest groups, the weather, complexity, and so on.  Just wait for it.

Added 5Jun: We expect media to prefer a Democrat over a Republican president if we think they are more Democratic than Republican, in current political terms.  We need make not reference to US or world public opinion.  In general an ambiguous supporting argument should be read as making the weakest claim necessary to give the desired support – no further disclaimers should be needed. 

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  • Intresting observation.

  • Jeff H.

    How much money would you bet on it?

  • Or, possibly, presidential power to do good is very limited, while their power to bring about great screwups is broad. We can’t expect the next president to fix the issues you set out, but we can expect them not to spend vast amounts on making them greatly worse.

  • Caledonian

    Most of Bush’s screw-ups happened because Congress permitted them – see the Second Iraq War. Most of Congress’s screw-ups are traditionally beyond the power of the President to realistically prevent. So who’s really to blame?

    That’s right: the American people.

  • spindizzy

    Caledonian, I think you brought up an important point.

    In the UK media, when the pupils of a school perform particularly badly, it’s always because the “teachers are failing their students”.

    The rise in teenage violent crime is because the “police are failing young people”.

    A recent case in which a mother and father murdered their child was described as an “extraordinary failing of social services”.

    Essentially, the responsibility for crimes and misdemeanours is attributed to government rather than to the actual perpetrator.

    Ironically, this is generally used as a premise for even more government.

  • I’ve been wondering what the US will be like when the trough of disillusionment (http://www.gartner.com/pages/story.php.id.8795.s.8.jsp) hits Obama. I’ll probably vote for him, but I just don’t get the whole mania thing. He’d have to be a real Black Swan in terms of integrity and ability just to live up to the expectations being set.

  • Chance

    “Specifically, we’ve heard that U.S. outcomes are bad because of Bush’s despicable motives — ”

    Other than a few rabid extremists, who have you heard that from? No one I know of seriously says Bush had despicable motives, rather, the consensus I see in the media (both in the left and a suprising amount of the right) is that his competence and judgement are what are in question. If I understand the above comment correctly that a president may have limited power to do good but a whole lot of power to screw things up, I agree wholeheartedly. For a blog on overcoming bias, this post has just the slightest whiff of it.

  • Paul, asymmetric ability might explain why things won’t get much better but not the various ways in which they will get worse.

    Chance, good point about judgment vs. motives.

  • I’m not American so can’t really comment on the “relatively liberal media” (Is it really?)
    But a relevant link for overcomingbias might be:

    Wikipedia: Hostile media effect

  • secular anti-humanist

    “liberal media” — I’m surprised to see such a meaningless term show up on this blog (other than in the form of mockery)

    Also, I’m surprised to see a post by Robin loaded with strawmen. Specifically, the claim that the media have said that “Bush has personally destroyed Iraq, New Orleans, the global environment, the deficit, oil and food prices, drug prices, the housing market, the mortgage industry, civil rights, and so on.”

    Very disappointing.

  • Julian Morrison

    Ask yourself which president was happily rolling down a thermodynamic gradient, and which must now slog arduously back up.

  • What’s interesting to me about Obama is nothing that you wrote in your post.
    What’s interesting to me is how rare he is as a politically successful magna cum laude graduate from Harvard Law School. Where are rest of them? Where are the sumas? He performs as you’d expect his competency class to peform, the rest of them are notable to me for their absence from the political stage.

  • Grant

    I agree that the media will definitely take Obama’s side. He’s charismatic and popular, and therefore it will be in their self interest to support him (just as it was in their self interest to support Bush after 9/11). I don’t know if they’ll need to make excuses for him though, since its so easy to just put a positive spin on things regardless of actual outcomes.

    Caledonian, why blame the American people? They didn’t ask for any of this.

  • So who’s really to blame?

    That’s right: the American people.

    Congress and the President are small enough numbers that it is meaningful to blame them for things. “The people” are, statistically, a gas. They will do whatever any other similar people in the same circumstances would do. So a “failure” of the entire American populace indicates that either 1) the system of government is not appropriate for the people it has, or 2) it wasn’t a “failure”; it was the best we can do.

    Continuing to blame “the people” for the failings of America is like when communists continued to blame insufficient ardor for the failure of communism. People are just people. There comes a time when you have to re-evaluate the system. Our political system is over 200 years old. It’s time to bring it forward into the 19th century.

  • spindizzy


    Your link to the “Media Bias” PDF file seems to be broken.


    The hostile media effect is no doubt applicable where you have two clear sides and one media outlet taking a (supposedly) central position. However, in America I don’t think this is the case. As I understand it, media companies are generally overtly Republican (Fox) or Democrat (CNN).

    The bias is therefore not so much a media bias as an audience bias i.e. presumably Robin thinks CNN gets more viewers.

    I admit I don’t like the suggestion behind the hostile media effect that we should trust our media more and ourselves less. That seems to me poor advice.

  • Robin,

    It seems to me you’re conflating two things: blaming Bush for the behavior of the government the past eight years (invading Iraq, mishandling Katrina when there were a few straightforward things that could have been done better) and things that really are outside the government’s control (almost everything else). Bush has been hugely influential in setting the agenda on how the government behaves, even if has no control over oil prices.

  • Constant

    If people think the claim that there is a liberal media bias is itself merely an expression of bias, they need only look among the entries of this blog for empirical evidence of the claimed bias. For example.

  • Alan

    I was hoping to see an elucidation of attribution bias, perhaps in conjunction with hindsight bias.

  • Wiseman

    Direct response: that’s just wrong. Bush signed into law, when he could have otherwise vetoed, all the bills that have done so much damage. On taxes, environment, education, etc. He also was the one who started the Iraq war, remember. He didn’t have to actually invade, did he?

    Plus, with all the Republican support in congress, he could have at least passed a few beneficial bills, seeing how many negative ones he got through.

    So sure, the general principle is true that “presidents aren’t all-powerfull”, but that doesn’t mean not blaming Bush for his failures, when they logically are his, makes sense either. Things will absolutely not be the same under Obama.

  • “U.S. presidents don’t control that much after all.”

    That doesn’t mean they can’t wreak a s&%tload of havoc. (Incompetence is a virtue in this respect.)

    Also, I think your confidence in Groseclose-Milyo could use updating.

  • Doug S.

    We should always remember that, as the great sage Stephen Colbert said, reality has a well-known liberal bias. 😉

  • michael vassar

    Seconding Wiseman and Doug S, and also Caledonian. Voting for Bush the first time is borderline justification for disenfranchisement. Voting him in a second time is clear cut use of the vote as a lethal weapon with malice aforethought.

    Phil G: The people may be a gas, but the first Bush election actually rode on small enough numbers of people to assign blame, not to mention screw ups by Gore and the whole Nader fiasco. Anyway, even if the people are “a gas” different cultures are surely different gases. Given the correlation of voting choices with geographic and demographic divides in the US “they will do what any other similar people in the same circumstances would do” implies that different demographic groups in the US are not “similar people” in the relevant sense. I agree that the US Constitution isn’t ideal for anyone, but it could obviously work a lot better if the North were to do the sensible thing and secede from the Confederacy.

    As for the people doing the best that they could, it’s notable how much better all the major candidates this last election (except Huckabee) were than any the previous election. De Tocqueville suggested that the people in American Democracy don’t elect the best they can, but rather the worst that they think they can get away with, hence good leaders in hard times and bad leaders in good times. On the evidence, that seems plausible.

  • Robin, the report you link provides no evidence for the proposition that the American media suffer from a liberal bias. The data cited by the report is equally explained by the hypothesis that US Congress suffers from a conservative bias. And this rival explanation receives strong support from the fact that the United States policies are far to the right relative to those of nearly all other nations.

  • gwern

    Jeff H.: I wouldn’t want to bet on media tones. Strikes me as a tad difficult to assess…

    It would be more useful to instead take bets on what Obama actually does; that is, if we are interested in the question “Is presidential power all it’s cracked up to be?” then our bets should focus on what he actually accomplishes that he wants to accomplish – so perhaps take his platform and make individual bets on whether each plank will be implemented.

    (This could still be difficult to assess, but I suspect it is easier to decide whether a given legislative compromise “fulfills” a plank than trying to make a universal assessment of something as amorphous, wide-scale, and complex as the global mass media.)

  • Caledonian

    People are just people. There comes a time when you have to re-evaluate the system.

    No system is sufficiently powerful to overcome the inadequacy of the people implementing it. Although admitted flawed, our political system is not the problem. The real problem is that crowds may have wisdom, but mobs do not.

    “A leader is one of the things that distinguishes a mob from a people. He maintains the level of individuals. Too few individuals and a people reverts to a mob.” – Frank Herbert

  • Roland

    The real power is in the hands of an elite, the president is just a symbolic figure. JFK tried to fight against this elite and was killed. Thinking that electing the right president will solve the problem is an illusion.

  • michael vassar

    Seconded Pablo.

    Roland; what predictive power does your hypothesis buy you, even in retrospect. JFK’s policies were mostly very mainstream, surely he was not the chief outlier among recent presidents. That would pretty clearly be Nixon, followed by Johnson. Johnson generally got his policies carried out, but they generally failed. Nixon largely failed to get his policies carried out. What political changes happened under him generally originated elsewhere.

    Caledonian: We substantially agree, but surely the flaws of the American people, great as they are, pale in comparison to those of the squishy emergent RNA parts that early evolution had to work with. Also, hierarchical error-correcting code enables you to do arbitrarily well with remarkably bad, though not arbitrarily bad parts. I bet that its currently known by someone how to do shockingly well with the people we have. What they don’t know is how to convince everyone that their solution would really work.

  • Of course cooperation is important. The point is how this observation is used. Is the point one makes that we shouldn’t be so hard on Bush for not trying to be decent, or that, now that we may have a President who will cooperate to do the right things, we can now focus on getting others to join us?

    I don’t have to wait. I already hear plenty often that the presidency isn’t omnipotent (Not that this one doesn’t try hard). Of course, that’s not to say that it won’t be news to some down the road.

    The point isn’t diplomacy and cooperation are hard – it’s that you can’t succeed without trying.

  • MZ

    Always check the methods:

    A Measure of Media Bias

    “To compute this, we count the times that a particular media outlet cites various think tanks and policy groups, and then compare this with the times that members of Congress cite the same groups.”

    Of course, those members of Congress must also be scored on the political spectrum, which is a subjective art. Different analysts score them wildly differently, especially in recent months when Obama’s critics have tried to paint him as “the most liberal member of Congress.”

    So say the National Journal and National Review, but non-conservative analysts have scored him as far closer to the center than Bush, and close to the mean among Democrats.


  • MZ

    “U.S. presidents don’t control that much after all”

    Well, he could veto bills, and he has been doing that a lot lately, but let’s remember that he didn’t veto a single bill for his first 6 years in office. Those who were in power during that time DO bare the responsibility for a lot of things, such as the Iraq war, the highest spending increases since LBJ, huge deficits, and so on. Some things like the mortgage crisis and a poor economy in 2000-2004 were out of their control, but when tax revenues are down during an economic slump, you can control spending, and the Congress and President were from the same party and ideology. They could have done that. So yes, there is blame to lay on them for some of our current problems.

    Another interesting thing that the media and various pundits like to mention is how the economy responds when a particular party takes office. Some are saying that economic indicators are better if McCain takes office than if Obama takes office. So, McCain, and by extension the Republicans, are better for the economy.

    But if you’ll remember, the market went up when the Democrats took over in 2006. What investors really like is a stable government (one that doesn’t do much), and the most stable government happens when the President is from a different party than Congress. That’s what happened in 2006, and if McCain takes office after this election, it will stay that way. An Obama/Democrat government is less stable, and that’s why market indicators are less favorable.

  • Caledonian

    What they don’t know is how to convince everyone that their solution would really work.

    Then they don’t really have a hierarchical error-correcting solution, do they?

    As far as I can determine, the truth of the matter is that the civilizations ruthless enough to put truly effective political systems in place are too unsophisticated to implement enlightened and effective systems, and the process of becoming sufficiently sophisticated involves passing through stages of increasing anti-ruthlessness. The ability to produce effective rhetoric increases, but not the ability to defend against it, and so societies end up ligating themselves in their own cords.

    What will it take for a single person to both recognize the nature of a true potential solution, and be willing to give up the cherished beliefs that prevent them from implementing it?

  • John

    It’s not that the media is unusually liberal. It’s that Congress is unusually conservative.

    Compared to Europe, that is.

  • It’s great that Robin is making a relatively falsifiable prediction (assuming Obama wins). We should all aim to make more public predictions so that we can improve our calibrations.

  • michael vassar

    Caledonian is asking the right questions here, (and his theory isn’t bad for a partial explanation that can be summarized in a sentence) but sadly I don’t have answers. I know some things that don’t work, even ones that sound plausible. But we are here to figure out how to get people to overcome bias, right?

  • @secular anti-humanist

    Don’t be disappointed. Robin is correct:

    “Media Bias Is Real, Finds UCLA Political Scientist”

    As a former wearer of a Capitol Hill press pass myself, I will argue that it is due to the class of people who are usually hired as journalists – they mostly represent and parrot back their self-interests. Since the editors who pay and promote them are of the same class, it works well for all concerned.

    Personally I enjoy being largely apolitical nowadays. I suggest it to more people.

    I think I am like Robin in that I might prefer a prediction market stake to a vote. Voting doesn’t “cost” people enough – they don’t have anything at stake, so they make careless decisions. In a market you have much more at risk.

  • Caledonian

    As I see it, the task of seizing ultimate power has three parts:

    1) Coming up with a method of acquiring and unifying control,
    2) convincing people to adopt and implement the method,
    3) and figuring out what to do with the control.

    Great dictators like Stalin and Hitler were extraordinarily charismatic people, which facilitated their rise to power, and they were able to produce self-reinforcing power structures – but I don't think any of them ever came up with a productive solution to the third step, and no such person has ever managed to sustain the power cycle long enough to crush all dissent. Rasputin resolved the second facet, but only had influence over a few members of the Royal Family, and didn't expand it through a positive feedback of control – the first was never dealt with. No idea about the third. Paul of Tarsus took the doctrines of some obscure Jewish reformists, twisted them into new forms, and ultimately made an extraordinarily potent memetic complex out of them. But it's not clear how much of the result was due to fortune and how much to direction – few cult leaders have managed similar accomplishments. See also: Abu l-Qasim Muhammad.

    Chairman Sheng-Ji Yang's military victory over all of Chiron is one of the few fictional examples. See also: Arslan.

    It's probably prohibitively difficult to create and implement the self-reinforcing system if you don't have remarkable charisma. It seems to be difficult to accomplish even if you *are* so gifted.

  • @Caledonian

    “the process of becoming sufficiently sophisticated involves passing through stages of increasing anti-ruthlessness.”

    Please then explain the history of China. Thank you.

  • Caledonian

    Wild speculation: a sufficient amount of excess population makes the value of human life drop. It’s basically a supply/demand issue.

    The government of modern China is still a pussycat compared to its earlier incarnations. If it were one-third* as ruthless as Qin Shi Huang-di’s was, it would probably have complete control of the planet by now.

    *semi-random number

  • spindizzy


    “Great dictators like Stalin and Hitler were extraordinarily charismatic people.”

    Hitler was certainly charismatic but I was under the impression that Stalin was not. This is based on admittedly hazy recollections of high school history. Perhaps I am wrong, but if so then please explain.

    More generally, is this talk about media bias of any value? I can see 3 types of bias:

    (1) Bias relative to someone’s personal view.

    Obviously not very interesting.

    (2) Bias relative to the average (median) view.

    Robin has argued we should defer to the average (mode) opinion in general, but I (and many others) don’t agree. In any case political centrism isn’t the mode opinion, it’s the median opinion on a 1 dimensional political spectrum.

    (3) Bias relative to the truth.

    Certain posters’ hubris aside, political “truths” as opposed to value judgements seem rather thin on the ground.

  • michael vassar

    2 types of charisma. Hitler had both the ability to impress one on one and one to many. Stalin was only good one on one, but he was VERY good one on one.

    US political centrism is VERY far from the average global or historical opinion in any event, so majoritarianism of any plausible sort doesn’t favor it.

  • Caledonian

    I began this line of thought after reading an article in Newsweek (a breathlessly inane rag, IMO) about low-income areas that were collectively collapsing because of “subprime” mortgage lending. It presented the issue as all of these people being victimized by ruthless, ‘predatory’ lenders ultimately working for huge, faceless Wall Street banks – which is essentially how I’ve seen the topic presented in public media – and it struck me: there was not one mention of how they had to be gullible, stupid, and greedy to sign lending agreements they didn’t understand, and at all times they were discussed as being helpless to resist being talked into seeking out and accepting such agreements.

    They were not only divested of all responsibility in the writer’s eyes, but even the capacity for responsibility. That sort of view on our society is pretty commonplace, but rarely have I ever seen it presented so… brazenly.

    It is steadily becoming harder and harder to distinguish reality from the World of Darkness Mortals setting.

  • One question I would look at on this issue is what happened during the Clinton administration. Did the media adopt the supportive narrative Robin describes – talking about limited Presidential power and how he is at the mercy of outside events? Well, it was quite some time ago, and memories are limited for this kind of thing. Certainly Clinton was widely criticized by his opponents and I don’t particularly recall the media making excuses for him. OTOH the Republican Congress was often criticized as well and got its share of the blame when things went badly, whereas today I seldom see anyone blaming the Democratic Congress for problems of the last two years (except insofar as they failed to stop Bush, not as in the 90s for pushing their own policies). Maybe social scientists will someday do a study of media commentary to judge whether the powerful-President narrative became more dominant between the Clinton and Bush years.

  • @Caledonian:

    “They were not only divested of all responsibility in the writer’s eyes, but even the capacity for responsibility.”

    Doesn’t this tell you a lot about the not-very-hidden racism of the journalistic/media class and also explain why they have leapt to kneel before Obama? Watching “white guilt” ripple like music over a drawing room is amazing.

    One of my African-American friends, however, is quick to notice that it is really just the other side of the racism coin. African-Americans are either pitiable objects We Must Protect or near divine Black Saints Who Redeem Us. Never can they be plainly and fully human.

    This goes straight to Robin’s point, altho’ of course being Robin, he is above mentioning race or class. The best thing about people under 30 today is that they don’t think, talk or act like this anymore, and they are largely post-race. This is one part of the future I will definitely enjoy.

  • I’ve posted here before my opinion that one the best ways to mute a range of viewpoints is to present a dialectic as if its the only two options. I see this here, posting that “the media” favors democrats over republicans, or “liberals” over “conservatives”, but not the consideration that the most notable favording is the democrat vs. republican dialectic vs. the range of political options and ideas. Of the comments in this thread, I think only Michael Vassar seems to be touching on this.

    This is a problem in that it can get the way of optimized policy to reduce catastrophic risk and improve the healthy lifespans of aging americans. Perhaps that’s the dialectic we should be pursuing and promoting. I fantasize about divided government between two parties, each focused on innovating policies to maximize our persistence odds in order to beat the other in their quests for political supremacy.

  • Douglas Knight

    Here’s a test that leads me to believe that one should think of borrowers as lacking responsibility: what is the effect of regulation on the behavior of the lenders vs the borrowers? I’ve also heard that the state-level regulation of lenders predicts subprime defaults pretty well. The only regulation of borrowers that springs to mind is whether mortgages are recourse loans. I don’t think that predicts subprime mortgage rates or defaults, although (1) I’m not entirely sure I’ve heard about such a study and (2) there may not be enough data, since I don’t think many states have recourse mortgages.

    Maybe this is a non sequitur; Newsweek certainly doesn’t think this way.

  • Floccina

    Pre-Katina projections of fatalities if New Orleans were a Katrina strength hurricane were over 10,000.

  • Lord

    If the ‘liberal media’ didn’t treat Bush with such deference and respect, if not awe, initially, perhaps they wouldn’t have turned so much against him as he screwed up. It won’t be a surprise to see such deference and respect again, only how heavily they turn against him may have to do with how many mistakes are made.

  • Robin,

    I suspect that you will be proven correct at least to some extent, assuming all works out as posited. However, a couple of points, mostly just reiterating things said by others.

    One has to do with this characterization of the US media. Yes, there is plenty of evidence that more people in the media are pro-Democrat than pro-Republican (much less pro-Libertarian). However, from the standpoint of most of the rest of the world, the US media is quite conservative, or “neoliberal.” One has to spend serious time abroad reading foreign media, especially that in non-English languages, to realize how insular and insulated and biased in a very conservative way most of the US media is by global standards. Most Ameicans are simply living in a media fantasyland.

    One issue where this can be seen quite clearly is the Iraq war. In the runup to it the supposedly “liberal” US media, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, supported Bush. There were very few foreign media outlets that did. Most very accurately forecast the problems and difficulties that indeed came to pass.

    Another point is that indeed it seems that the power of presidents to screw up is probably greater than it is to “do good.” So, I would agree that most of the things you listed that people have blamed Bush for were not his fault. Even Katrina, which seriously hurt his public image, there was not all that much he could have done to make things all that much better, even though he managed to look woefully incompetent and out of touch when it happened (which he was).

    As far as I am concerned there are only two things on your list where he is clearly very much at fault. The big one, clearly, is the Iraq war, his baby all the way. The other, where he shares blame with idiot ideologues in the Republican Party and special interests in the Congress, is the deficit.

    Finally, there is one that neither you nor anybody else has mentioned. Torture. In traveling around the world, which I do a lot of, there is nothing that has happened in a long time, maybe ever, that has more seriously damaged the moral standing of the US in the world than our massive use of torture since 9/11, with that guy standing on a box with a hood on his head and wires coming off him the poster boy. That may not have been what it appeared, and that image has largely disappeared from US consciousness, but it most definitely has not disappeared from the consciousness of the rest of the world. Some may wish to blame lower level officials or Cheney or Rumsfeld, but I put the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of George W. Bush. If there is a hell, let him rot in it for what he did in this matter and for the damage he has done to the United States of America that will take a long time to repair.

  • Cyan

    Even Katrina, which seriously hurt [Bush’s] public image, there was not all that much he could have done to make things all that much better…

    This touches on an interesting point. The capacity of a president to do good or ill rests in large part on the job appointments he makes. The Katrina disaster is a case in point — Michael Brown was an incompetent crony. We can contrast this to Clinton’s choice to head FEMA: James Lee Witt, a competent Clinton crony.

  • Marc Geddes

    Obama stump speech, Jan 15th, 2009:

    ‘We must renew our commitment to science and technology, and revitalize that can-do, cowboy pioneering spirit that has been the most admirable aspect of this nation seen since the day it flowed through the veins of the founders…’


    ‘Our achievements in the physical sciences have been without peer, but, in wise words from the philosohers of the past, ‘To know thyself’ is most admirable. A president is first amd foremost a decision maker. We need a science of making good decisions. Thus, based on the ancient wisdom of the past, to secure the future, we must now support the cognitive sciences in the present.’


    ‘To this end, in the first days of my presidency I have authorized the creation of a new agency dedicated entirely to the cognitive sciences and decision theory’


    ‘…one of its tasks will be a great project… a Manhatten style project of the mind… to commit ourselves, before this decade is out, to the development of true artificial general intelligence’

    …(no reaction from the crowd. Unsettled looks)

    ‘…to head this great task, I have appointed a world-class scholar by the name of Robin Hanson’

    …(crowd looks puzzled).

    ‘…the full resources and brain-power of this nation are now at the disposal of the erstwhile Professor Hanson. With his leadership, we will develop the world’s first true thinking machine’

    …(sniggers, frowns and puzzled looks from reporters)

    …(suddenly a cleverly planted group of actors in the crowd starts loudly clapping and cheering shrilly. Social proofing causes more of the crowd to join in)

    …(The herd instinct spreads, and finally the entire crowd is on their feet, clapping and cheering wildly, for no rational reason. With Hanson in charge of the AGI project, the future is assured).

  • Caledonian

    Here’s a test that leads me to believe that one should think of borrowers as lacking responsibility: what is the effect of regulation on the behavior of the lenders vs the borrowers?

    That’s not a test, that’s a question. And it really isn’t relevant. The issue is that some people treat the banks as having a responsibility because they offered poor deals to people, but reject the idea that the people have a responsibility for taking them up on the offer.

    I suspect, but cannot demonstrate, that this is another incarnation of a societal sickness: viewing “the people” as passive recipients of institutional actions; the first cannot have responsibility for any harm they cause or suffer, because society should have anticipated and prevented it.

    It’s an infantilization of the individual. Only collective activities can be effective, and they are infinitely capable – so any outcome that we find undesirable represents a failure of an institution.

  • Jor

    Let me just second chance’s post — the consensus view isn’t on Bush’s motives — its definitely on his utter incompetence. Now if you said Cheney — well, than there is a lot of talk about how he is pure evil. BTW, its really, really hard to argue that the Bush administration did not forcefully start the war in Iraq. Its hard to imagine a president Gore would have pursued the same route. Maybe, once a president decides on a course of action, he loses control on the outcome, but its pretty clear that that one decision was Bush’s and his alone.

  • michael vassar

    Good comment Mark Geddes!

    Caledonian, actually on this point I think Douglas Knight’s recent point and Phil Goetz’s point about people as a gas hold pretty well. Individual people, one at a time, are held responsible for their banking decisions all the time, but a massive correlated group of people is a collective failure and it can only sensibly be blamed on collective or institutional action (or some charismatic leader). By the fact that others in their circumstances acted in the same way we know that the individual people were not individually responsible in the only relevant sense, that of their actions reflecting disposition rather than situation. When possible, try to be on guard for the fundamental attribution error.

    Collective activities can be awesomely effective, but collectives generally lack human style deliberation and initiative. Structuring them to do what will have good effect is a job for human experts, but unfortunately a highly politicized one, nearly guaranteeing that it will usually be done by demagogues or their pseudointellectual equivalent instead. It seems to me that we thus need an institution designing committee of economically secure and only modestly needy (to minimize politicization) experts in designing institutions or collectives who can reliably generate synthetic demagogues prone to acting either beneficially or significantly less harmfully than the natural kind and who can also reliably reject or at the minimum nicely ignore pseudointellectuals (ideally while shunting them into some sort of status contest that doesn’t look very truth-seeking to half-competent truth-seekers OR have much impact on policy so they don’t keep causing trouble) while pushing their institutional designs or design improvements into reality (preferably initially in small local laboratories). Intuitively, new federal bureaucracies in medicine and education might emerge fairly soon, significantly centralizing power over major governmental functions with significant current state autonomy, large budgets, and relatively powerless but publicly high status parallel academic structures into which pseudointellectuals could be shunted. High level positions in such bureaucracies might be great places to place such an institution of experts. It would be low profile, and competition would tend to be bureaucratic. Better than the National Parks Commission!
    What’s really needed to make this work is some sort of autonomy for such roles such as that enjoyed by the fed.

  • Sam B

    Individual people, one at a time, are held responsible for their banking decisions all the time, but a massive correlated group of people is a collective failure and it can only sensibly be blamed on collective or institutional action (or some charismatic leader).

    A million individual failures add up to a million individual failures and nothing else, just as if you keep adding 2s, they will always add up to 2*n no matter how many 2s you add. When I’m at the bank, with my pen poised over the sub-prime mortgage contract, every single one of the firing neurons that affect the decision whether to make my mark or not is inside my own head. My neighbour might have influenced me, the newspaper might have influenced me, the market might have influenced me, but at the moment of decision, none of their thoughts or beliefs directly affect the movement of my arm.

    If it turns out that they influenced me badly, then the tsuyoku naritai response is “I must pay less attention to bad influences”, not “someone should have saved me from myself”.

    institution designing committee… reliably generate synthetic demagogues… truth-seeking to half-competent truth-seekers… significantly centralizing power over major governmental functions… parallel academic structures… competition would tend to be bureaucratic.

    You are Sir Humphrey Appleby and I claim my five pounds.

  • spindizzy
  • Floccina

    To my earlier post:
    Pre-Katina projections of fatalities if New Orleans were a Katrina strength hurricane were over 10,000.
    I should add:
    The people who made those projection would probably not have bet on it.

  • Joined by Eliezer, if he can figure out a) if he is alive or dead, and b) which universe he is in.

    Regarding “Brownie,” later reports came out that in fact he was not nearly as incompetent as he was portrayed in the media, although almost certainly less competent than most of his predecessors. He warned Bush there were problems, but was ignored. However, at best there might have been a better handled evacuation and more emergency equipment and supplies in sooner, with probably some lives saved. But the major problem ran much deeper and was not obviously the fault of Brownie or Bush, although if they had been super competent they might have fixed it, namely the crummy shape of the levees in New Orleans, a problem that had been publicly known and reported on for a long time.

  • It seems that demand accumulates for posts that mention politics, giving commentors an excuse to talk about politics. Perhaps we should make this a regular feature, like our monthly open thread. 🙂

  • Caledonian

    but a massive correlated group of people is a collective failure and it can only sensibly be blamed on collective or institutional action (or some charismatic leader).

    That’s a remarkable statement. If I approach a single stupid and greedy person with a get-rich-quick offer, and they accept, they are responsible for making a bad choice. But if I approach a group of stupid and greedy people individually, and each accepts the offer, there is now a collective action responsible for their choices? Even though their choices were made independently?

    How exactly do you intend to prevent legally competent adults from entering into contractual obligations that will likely hurt them, since they cannot be considered capable of being responsible for their own actions? Being responsible for their own actions is what being ‘legally competent’ means.

  • Cyan

    [Brown] warned Bush there were problems, but was ignored.

    You can defend Brown by saying Bush ignored him, but that hardly supports your original contention that Bush had little control over the outcome.

    if they had been super competent they might have fixed [the major problem], namely the crummy shape of the levees in New Orleans, a problem that had been publicly known and reported on for a long time.

    Since the problem was so well known, I’d say that ordinary competence ought to have sufficed.

    Let’s not get lost in the weeds, though. My main point is that modern presidents past, present and future may not have a lot of direct control over the particular outcomes, but do exercise a great deal of influence just by picking who runs what. The corollary is that it is fair to hold a president responsible for his staffing picks.

  • Dan Lewis

    There’s a missing link here, which is that Bush has pushed a Nixonian theory of the unaccountable executive and consolidated major powers under the executive. Look at his signing statements, for instance, which were blank checks to himself to ignore the rule of law. He bears the responsibility when the executive branch defies the legislative branch and the will of the people. Throughout, he has used “national security” as a fig leaf to operate in defiance of the law and in secret.

    So yes, he controls the executive branch, not typhoons or the economy. Let’s look at what he’s done with just his branch.

    Bush filled the federal bureaucracy with incompetent timeservers, cronies, and patrons. There is a reason all the crap is hitting the fan now: in a real emergency, heckuva-job chair-wasters are not smart and they do not get things done.

    Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster no one could control. FEMA was a human disaster controlled by a doofus. Bush was mugging for the cameras with McCain and country western stars when the water hit the top of the levees.

    Bush replaced US attorneys on politically sensitive investigations, at the behest of his political team. Alberto Gonzales took the fall for the President, but the current AG is refusing to file contempt charges handed over by Congress for Rove and Miers.

    He restarted TIA in defiance of a law that declared it illegal, recreating a vast information-sucking operation. This goes hand in hand with his defiance of FISA, a quite explicit law forbidding the wiretapping of Americans without particularized warrants. He told the NSA to start sucking up call data and Internet traffic indiscriminately, and he did so repeatedly. Even now he and his supporters in Congress are trying lamely to shut down lawsuits by EFF, ACLU, and others to get to the bottom of things.

    There is a very real trail of evidence that Bush couldn’t have cared less about whether Iraq, but was determined to invade from early in his presidency. See, eg, the Paul O’Neill book by Ron Suskind. He bent the national security apparatus to his will to do so, then lied in public about the evidence to go to war.

    The so-called liberal media (see mediamatters.org for another side of the story) has been his pliant co-conspirator, with the exception of some ignored voices out on the fringes.

    The list actually goes on. So to answer your question, I hardly know whether the media will make excuses for the ups and downs of an Obama presidency. But there is plenty to lay at the feet of an active and malevolent presidency, including the elephant in the room, detainee treatment, Abu Ghraib, and torture.

  • komponisto

    [Bush] lied in public about the evidence to go to war.

    I don’t mean to get into a political flamewar, but this is simply not true. There was an intelligence failure. That’s not the same as the president lying. It just isn’t.

    I get that you don’t like Bush’s policies, but that doesn’t make him a liar or a criminal. Bush, like virtually everyone else (including the intelligence services of countries that opposed the invasion), believed that the Hussein regime possessed stockpiles of prohibited weapons. At the time, that was an eminently reasonable belief. Learn to accept this.

  • The study Hanson cites is possibly unreliable when it comes to measuring media bias in comparison to the population of America, but it does a decent job in measuring comparative media bias, e.g. X media outlet is more ___-leaning than Y media outlet. Except even that assumes two things: 1) there’s a roughly equal distribution of think tanks across the spectrum, and 2) there’s a roughly equal distribution of trustworthy think tanks across the spectrum. And in adjusting for these, you then have to assume that media outlets prefer credibility over ideological compatibility (or at least desire it significantly).

    Media bias is hard to measure because political leanings themselves are hard to measure. I really don’t think that the media is too biased either way you look at it. Considering the types of people who get into journalism (young fresh-out-of-college adults with a lot to say), the places where news is more likely to be covered, and other factors, I’d assume that American media as a whole, if anything, is a little left-of-center in comparison to America’s spectrum as a whole.

  • Robin, do you believe Bush was, or was not, personally responsible for making torture American policy?

  • komponisto, your beliefs that there was an intelligence failure, and that virtually every intelligence service believed that the Hussein regime possessed stockpiles of prohibited weapons, is a belief that is not supported by current evidence; nor is it supported by the contemporary evidence of the U.N. weapons inspectors under Hans Blix.

    President Bush made statements he knew to be false with the intent of securing the consent of the American Congress for a war he chose.

  • Phillip Huggan

    Bush has destroyed Iraq for profit of friends and because his PNAC doesn’t like non-Christians. Obama does not serve the PNAC.

    Bush mildly delayed the NO rescue by not immediately firing incompetant officials (like the horse trainer who didn’t set up a command centre). Do you really think Obama’s mother would tell the American people: people living in the Superdome are doing good for themselves (I really hope Barb just meant to say: good, given the situation)?

    GWB campaigned on a platform that no one would tempt the US thirst for oil. He actively has lobbied for big oil and supressed scientific discovery so badly, I’m almost willing to give the Chinese super-power model a try, for all its warts. Obama has a $150 billion ten-year enviro-trust in the planning. He has enough measured caution in his stated biofuel and nuclear platforms, that he might even avoid/divest these pyrhic “solutions”.

    The US deficit is primarily a Republican tax-cut and Iraq War creation. Bush’s Iraq War added $5/barrel to oil prices and maybe he unleashed inflation or USD flight that added another $5. Not much. His corn biofuel subsidies doubled corn prices and increased most other crop prices….

    I doubt B.Obama would utilize racial profiling of Arabs as much as Bush is. I say this because he has friends (such as the Reverand) who should keep him grounded from his upbringing. It would be neat to see Obama institute a law that all whites must spend a day a year in a federal prison, like “Waldon Two” or the Soviet gulag. I’d bet 1/2 (drug possession, THC distribution, consensual sex with a mid-teen, not rapes and murders) the black inmates get immediately released in the aftermath…on the downside, Hepatitas, MRSA and HIV rates among affluent free whites would rise.

    I agree its more a systemic than a leadership issue. If he was so bad, he wouldn’t have won in 2004. My own belief for the CNN flip-flop, is the network realized just in 2008 it was responsible for helping to dumb-down American 2000/2004 voters, and it didn’t want to unleash a third harm on the US people. CNN is remorseful.

  • David J. Balan

    The Groseclose and Milyo paper you linked to is, in my judgment (and I’ve spoken to Groseclose and corresponded with Milyo), fundamentally flawed. This isn’t the forum for going into it, but I felt the need to throw it out there.

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