Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Too Much Bullshit?

One way to understand political conflict is to situate the contending parties, and the people they're trying to rally to their side, somewhere to the right or the left of each other on a one-dimensional political spectrum. Once we’ve positioned them to our satisfaction, it’s easy to apply familiar stereotypes. We place people indisposed to compromise with the political opposition at some distance from the center because we associate intransigence with ideological purity. We assume that political actors disdain accommodation because, depending on your point of view, they're either admirably principled or regrettably doctrinaire. By the same token, we tend to think of centrists as being more flexible in the application of their principles and either esteem them as worldly pragmatists or disparage them as cynical opportunists.

Seen in this light, political failure is always a matter of being too far to the right or the left of the ideological sweet spot.  That’s the template for most political commentary on Obama’s predicament after the Massachusetts Senate election. Evan Bayh explains Obama’s loss of support by his straying too far from the political center. He prescribes some Clintonian triangulation as the remedy.  Steve Benen thinks, on the contrary, that the key to future success is Obama’s having the fortitude to stand his ground and confront the opposition head on.

That’s the sort of argument that ideological comrades can’t help having.  But ideological positioning doesn’t explain everything. For one thing, it doesn’t take account of the political costs of a president’s acquiring a reputation for bullshitting.

The ubiquitous phenomenon of “bullshitting” was luminously analyzed by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt nearly forty years ago. “Bullshit,” he explained, is a purportedly factual statement uttered by a speaker indifferent to its truth or falsity. We normally presume that speakers mean to tell us something that’s true. If we didn’t, liars couldn’t deceive us by saying something they think is false. Although they speak with opposing intentions respecting the truth, honest speakers and liars both necessarily care about it. For Frankfurt, the crucial thing about bullshit is that bullshitters don’t:

“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the truth nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” (On Bullshit (2005) at 55-56.)
I fear that Obama’s getting a reputation for bullshitting in this sense. He has expended extraordinary energy projecting the appearance of thoughtfulness, usually without disclosing anything resembling a substantive thought.  The disparity between appearance and reality is starting to show. Here are the first three examples that come to mind:

1. Obama's incantation that the healthcare bills that emerged from the House and the Senate “won’t add a dime to the deficit” is bullshit pure and simple. That claim is based on budgetary scoring according to the accounting conventions of the CBO. Everyone knows that these calculations bear only a tenuous connection to economic realities. CBO scoring is especially misleading when it’s applied to health care bills that were engineered to back into a budgetary target by exploiting the accouning conventions’ most arbitrary features. Yet Obama speaks as if he really knows that these bills will pay for themselves. If you believe the polls, most Americans aren’t buying that. Why should they?

2. Obama’s gotten a lot of rhetorical mileage out of rejecting the “false choice” between our security and our ideals about the rule of law. But sometimes we really have to choose between these competing goods.  It's hard to believe that Obama has responsibly calibrated the trade-offs when his administration committed the Underwear Bomber to the criminal justice system within a day of his apprehension without even pretending to weigh any of the security-related costs in the balance. The administration’s comically inept justifications after the fact destroyed any vestige of hope that Obama and his principal advisers have thought these issues through.

3. The spending freeze that Obama promises to announce in tomorrow’s State of Union Address may be good politics. If you’re a deficit-hawk, you might even think it will do a microscopic bit of good. But it’s so far at odds not just with Obama's campaign rhetoric, but with the theories behind his other economic initiatives, that you can’t blame Paul Krugman for throwing up his hands in disgust.

I don’t want to overstate the case. Bullshit is arguably the grease that allows the wheels of any political operation to turn. So any problem Obama has in this regard can only be a relatively subtle matter of degree. But a reputation for excessive bullshitting is a problem that can’t be addressed by pivoting to the right or the left. The only cure is to do a better job of enunciating, and persuading people that you’re determined to stick to, well-articulated priorities and a reasonably well-developed theory about how the political economy works.

The State of the Union Address would be a good place to start.

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