Tuesday, October 26, 2010

President Obama and Christine O’Donnell

What do two politicians who are so diametrically different have in common? They both have significant intellectual blind spots. 

The New York Times reported that President Obama said that there is no such thing as shovel ready projects in a recent interview in the New York Times.  Shovel ready projects were one of three major pieces of the stimulus package that the Congress passed early in 2009.   The other two are limited term tax cuts, which fail to be effective about two quarters after they expire, and payments to states to maintain existing government workers, which is not stimulus. 

Of the three parts of the stimulus, the one that had some potential to stimulate was the shovel ready projects part.  Had it been known at the time the stimulus package was being considered that there are no shovel ready projects, then we as a nation would have looked for other ways to work ourselves out of the recession. The skeptical observer would cite something called a ‘time lag’ as the period between the point in time when a economic policy is adopted and the time it’s effects are felt.  Skeptics predicted that the time lag would be years to feel the effects of the stimulus because they doubted that there were shovel ready projects.  Now, we learn that the skeptics were right.

The statement invited a chorus of criticism.  Some commentators said he lied.   Others, like Derek Thompson of the Atlantic Monthly, said he is intellectually dishonest.  I come down close to the latter, though with a nuance, because intellectual dishonesty can be seen as someone not being honest with himself.  It is not a criticism of character, but rather one of a person’s ability to reason, especially in the area of self-evaluation.  Sometimes we lie to ourselves.  I don’t believe that Obama knew that his policy choice was ineffective and misrepresented the situation, but that leaves the situation where he may not have the good sense to question the major assumptions on which his policies are built.  It makes him look incompetent, or worse.   Had he doubted the realism of a shovel ready project in February 2009, his administration could have drafted something that could have worked.

Andrew Sullivan, a liberal blogger, likes the fact that the President is smart and brings his intellectual honesty to the task of policy making.  Why did Obama fail at it when it comes to the economy?  From the Times interview Obama still believes he made the right choice and that those un-shovel ready projects will ultimately work us out of our bad economic times.  The current state of the economy is sufficient evidence that his approach on the economy is wrong, and his apparent desire is to continue along a discredited path. 

The President went to Massachusetts to campaign for its Governor and proclaimed that Republicans stood by while he tried to fix the economy insisting that he was doing it wrong.  If events have proven the President wrong and his opponents right then why not reexamine the policy and set a new course consistent with good policy making?  We are paying the price for the President trying to prove that his approach to fixing the economy actually works in spite of the evidence.

Joel Klein wrote a column in Time about Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell and questioned why we, the public, seem fascinated with candidates like her, who are ignorant of the issues.  When asked, she could not name a single Supreme Court case with which she disagreed.  We like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”.  We, the public, like candidates who are like us.   But why must these candidates be ignorant of the issues?   Good point.  I agree.

Ignoring the facts should also be avoided.  To persist on a policy approach that is intellectually bankrupt when people are hurting may or may not be intellectually dishonest, but it is grossly inadequate.  Change is required.

What do these two politicians have in common?  They have major intellectual blind spots.  They cannot see what others see.

So, are we left with a choice between politicians who ignore certain relevant facts versus others who ignore different but relevant facts?   

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