Character and Circumstance

I think we all listen to our friends, relatives, and colleagues complain about their predicament, and then silently think, “Well what do they expect?  Their predicament perfectly reflects their character.”  If they are a lazy spendthrift, then they will go through life thinking that adverse circumstances are always denying them the money they need.  If they are envious, then their colleagues will be unfairly promoted ahead of them.  Etc, etc.

But when we think about ourselves, well then things are very different.  If only we could get out from under burden X, our life would be so much easier.  At least that’s the way I look at things, and I am pretty sure that others share this same sort of bias.  Indeed I recall reading about some psychological study that showed this bias is fairly common.  While reading the Portuguese writer Pessoa, I recently came across this quotation:

Whenever I’ve tried to free my life from a set of the circumstances that continuously oppress it, I’ve been instantly surrounded by other circumstances of the same order, as if the inscrutable web of creation were irrevocably at odds with me.

 %$@#& that inscrutable web of creation. 

When it comes to countries, I think most intellectuals exhibit the same bias.  When we form a mental image of another democratic country, we don’t typically think in terms of the current leader, but rather a much deeper set of characteristics, what you might call the character of a country.  France, Italy, Switzerland, Japan; the names of each of these countries trigger complex mental images for most of us, but how many readers of this blog could even name the leaders of Switzerland and Japan?  I could name the current leaders of France and Italy, but I don’t think that these individuals have much to do with my mental image of each country. 

For our own country things are much different.  We all remember the idiotic celebrities who threaten to leave the country if so and so is elected.  Most intellectuals are somewhat more level-headed, but don’t we all tend to exaggerate the importance of who is elected?  I think this is especially true when the leader is someone you don’t like.  Deep down, conservatives feel they have never been given a chance; that the liberal elite runs the media, courts, colleges, and there are enough squishy Republicans that nothing substantive gets accomplished.  I think this excuse is hogwash, but I am pretty sure it is widely held.  In contrast, left-leaning intellectuals often refer to “Reagan’s America,” or “Thatcher’s Britain.”  But I’ve never heard the phrases ”Jimmy Carter’s America,” or “Gordon Brown’s Britain.”  Why not?  Because if the more liberal candidate is elected, the country will still face the same problems as before, just as Switzerland and Japan will still be Switzerland and Japan regardless of which non-entities happen to hold their highest offices.  You obviously cannot admit that your country’s failings reflect the weaknesses of your own ideology.  In fact they probably don’t reflect your ideology—but that is equally true when the bad guys are in power.

I seem to be the only person in the world who thinks Al Gore would have led us into Iraq.  Why?  Perhaps because he campaigned as a hawk, and was known to be very distrustful of Saddam.  Perhaps because being elected by a tiny margin, with (in that case) blame for the intelligence failure of 9/11 falling 100%  on the Dems, he would have been under tremendous pressure to look tough with a candidate like McCain getting ready for 2004.  Perhaps because he would have been surrounded by pro-war hawks.  He promised that Richard Holbrooke would be his foreign policy “czar.”  And remember his VP pick in 2000?  This counterfactual seems obvious, but I’ve never met a Republican or a Democrat who agrees with me.  My history is a bit shaky, but didn’t McKinley oppose the Spanish American war?  Didn’t Wilson promise to keep us out of WWI?  Didn’t Johnson promise to keep American boys out of Vietnam?  Presidents don’t go to war, countries go to war. 

This post was triggered by recent liberal disappointment with Obama on health care and other issues.  What did they expect?  Perhaps they thought that when Obama was elected President that the United States would suddenly morph into France.  But do they want the government to build 100s of nuclear power plants?  Do they want the government to be able to ram double-tracked high speed rail lines through beautiful, pastoral suburbs and exurbs and small towns of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and Maryland, with environmentalists powerless to stop it in the courts?  Do they want us to send troops to prop up corrupt African governments without UN approval?  I suppose progressives would respond that they want the high quality French public services.  But America was settled by the Brits, the French went to Quebec.  If we tried to emulate France we’d end up with big government and lousy public services, like the British.   

You can tell a lot about an intellectual by their attitude towards trains.  My 10-year old daughter loves trains.  I like riding on trains.  In a few days I will be riding on a 200mph train from Beijing to Tianjin.  The trip will be 100 miles in 30 minutes.  I am looking forward to it.  But high speed rail makes no sense for the US, for all sorts of reasons.  People that know far more about intercity rail than I do insist the proposed projects are hopelessly utopian.  Americans will not use Amtrak outside the Northeast corridor, and we can’t even build high-speed track in the one place we need it.  Even in England, a country we resemble much more than France, and a country far more suited to high-speed rail than the US, and a country ruled by Labour for 12 straight years, the only high speed line is the London—Paris link.  And even that was very difficult for the Brits to build.  Krugman recently announced that the sort of expert opinions I refered to are “stupid.”  How does he know this?  Because he looked out of the window of his train while in Rahway NJ, and things looked kind of densely populated.  Something is dense, but it ain’t New Jersey.  Northeast New Jersey has about 6 million people spread over a couple thousand square miles of suburbia.  Paris is 20 times as dense, with 2.2 million people in an area of only 34 square miles, all living a few blocks from subway lines that will whisk them to high speed train stations.  High speed rail in America?  As they say in New Jersey, fugitaboutit.

I hope I don’t sound too fatalistic.  Elections are very important, but mostly because of the fact that we have them.  The real action is in changing the zeitgeist, not who ekes out an election victory.  In some ways we will become much more like France, for instance I think we will move closer to universal health insurance.  And in some ways France is becoming much more like the US, as when they deregulated the commercial airline industry and privatized lots of big companies.  But none of these long run trends will be determined by who wins elections.  Mitterrand started the mass privatization in France, and Bush just enacted a $1.2 trillion dollar program to expand government health insurance.  The trends will be determined by the zeitgeist.  Krugman does play an important role in that debate.  But if he wants to continue to do so, I suggest he do his homework on high-speed rail.

In the 1960s most Americans knew that Mao was leader of China, whereas today very few can name Hu Jintao.  Does that mean we are less well informed?  No.  There was good reason to know who Mao was, he was one of the most important figures in world history, and his decisions greatly affected the lives of millions.  There is no need to know who Hu is (pun intended.)  Fortunately for the Chinese people, Hu could not launch a Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution even if he wanted to.  It is often said that China is not a democracy.  That is true.  But it is also true that China is far more democratic today than under Mao, just as Switzerland is far more democratic than America.  There are degrees of democracy and degrees of authoritarianism.  The more democratic it becomes, the less it matters who is president.

Earlier I said that character matters more than circumstance (of leadership) in democratic countries.  Mao is an example of how circumstance can matter a lot in non-democratic countries.  But even in China character matters more than people think.  While hiking the Great Wall I spoke with a Westerner who lived in one of those ugly industrial towns in the Pearl River delta.  He described it as a nightmarish place full of corruption, pollution, and crime; where money was everything.  He said the tainted milk scandal occurred in a nearby town.   The next day I read the following description of Chengdu, a big city in the western part of China:

Chengdu has been applauded as the Chinese city with the most “soft power” . . . In recent years soft power has become an increasing important factor in the success or failure of a city or region, in terms of both satisfying the needs of its residents and attracting external support from the commercial sector.

“Soft power” is now annually evaluated across 10 different criteria, including cultural appeal, innovative capacity, ability to support science and education, effectiveness of government administration, city cohesion, attractiveness to the business sector, social harmony, capability of image communication, level of coordination, and effectiveness of information transmission. 

In other words, the extent to which it resembles Denmark (to refer to one of my earlier posts.)  The communist Chinese media get it.

[BTW, the same issue of the China Daily indicated that while China grew 7.1% in the first half of 2009, Chengdu grew 14.3%.  Chengdu is also located next to some of the most sublime scenery on earth.  Jiouzhaigou is an area of lakes and streams with such gorgeous colors that you'd think you had awoken in some fairytale dreamland.  And there are mountains nearby that rise to almost 25,000 feet.  It makes Denver seem like Dallas in comparison.] 

So even within China character matters a lot.  You may wonder if I should be relying on a paper published by the Chinese government.  The answer is yes.  As with any paper you must filter out biases, but when you do so the China Daily is just as informative as any American paper, and far more entertaining.  I was about to compare the Chinese government to the French government in terms of their ability to ram high-speed rail through neighborhoods, but then I remembered that a citizens groups in Shanghai stopped a maglev train from going through their neighborhood.  I learned this from the China  Daily.  You might argue that that is only because Shanghai residents are influential, and that farmers’ land rights are ruthlessly exploited by local officials in league with property developers and local gangs.  And you’d be right; at least that is what the China Daily says.  China’s government-owned media is often critical of the government.

In an earlier post I discussed overcoming our inclination to believe that our side of the political dispute is good and the other side is evil.  (Call it the Krugman/Limbaugh misconception.)  But we also have to overcome our perception that elections are about the future course of our country.  Actually, they are about picking managers who will oversea public policy as we move into a future that is determined by the changing zeitgeist.  I like Obama at a personal level;  he seems to have the right qualifications to be a relatively non-annoying president.  He comes across well.  But let’s not expect too much of him.  In his inaugural address of 1929 the young, energetic and supremely competent Herbert Hoover promised a much more activist government than Coolidge had conducted.  Coolidge reportedly muttered, “We’ll see what the wonder boy can do.”  Obama had the good fortune to take power when the economy was already in crisis, so he won’t be as unlucky as Hoover.  But make no mistake about it, like any president Obama’s reputation in the history books will depend far more on luck, than on anything he does or doesn’t do while in office.

PS.  I am well aware of the fact that there are many people who are unhappy because of circumstance, not character.  I just don’t happen to know them.  If I lived in North Korea I’m sure my attitude toward this issue would be much different.

PPS.  I just noticed that Krugman has a follow up to his high-speed rail piece.  I presume he got some feedback.  Unfortunately his is just about the only blog I can get over here in China, so I am out of touch.  I’m sure others can criticize his post much more effectively than I can, and perhaps some already did so.  BTW, I am not denying that some token high-speed line might get built somewhere in the US, and that a few people might ride it.  What I do deny is that it makes any sense from a cost/benefit perspective.  And I also deny that it would ever carry more than a miniscule percentage of intercity travelers.


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54 Responses to “Character and Circumstance”

  1. Gravatar of Brian Moore Brian Moore
    26. August 2009 at 09:02

    “I seem to be the only person in the world who thinks Al Gore would have led us into Iraq.”

    Nope. I think so too, and I was against the Iraq war too. Regardless of how much we’d like to think otherwise, invading Iraq was something most Americans wanted in 2003. I think they were wrong, but as the VP of a president who spent a great deal of the 90′s fighting with Saddam, it’s strange to imagine that he would just turn around and not leverage that.

    In 2000, I didn’t vote for Gore or Bush, but if asked to base my opinion of which leader would be more likely to invade Iraq during their presidency based on their campaign speeches, I would have said Gore. But then, as you point out, the important factor is what everyone else wanted. And Americans really do like the idea of invading other countries, regardless of the party affiliation of their leaders.

  2. Gravatar of Brian Moore Brian Moore
    26. August 2009 at 09:11

    Let me expand on one of your ideas:

    “Presidents don’t go to war, countries go to war. ”

    I think one of the reasons people like to place all this emphasis on the leader is that it makes it easy to deny it later. To continue with the Iraq war analogy, there are a huge chunk of Americans who were pro-war in 2003, but are anti-war today. Does anyone think that even more than a few of them would, if asked, say this: “yes, I was wrong, and I should have seen that I was wrong, because there were many people who were right at the time.” Very few indeed. But many of them will tell you how they were tricked by Bush. If the “wrong ones” were all those Americans, they would have to confront their error, something people do not like to do.

    Plus, the amount of Presidential influence varies based on the field. Tyler Cowen says you should vote for a president based on his foreign policy, since that is where they will have the most influence.

  3. Gravatar of Phil P Phil P
    26. August 2009 at 09:22

    What I’ve always heard on the subject was that high speed rail could be more efficient than airlines for intercity travel of a certain distance, say 400-500 miles, where the traffic is sufficient, which might be the case in some parts of the country other than the NE corridor. Whether that’s true, I don’t know. What I’d like to know is, hasn’t there been some academic research on this? It’s hard to believe there hasn’t. That’s what bugs me about the public discourse of economists; so many airy statements of opinion backed up by nothing. That applies both to Krugman and you, Scott. Yeah, I know you’re in China, and I’m not trying to pick on you personally. It’s just very frustrating as a layman not to know what to believe. You know, I frequently read in the press about medical studies, which sometimes reach results that are disputed, or that contradict other studies, but at least you read about actual work being done! You don’t hear about doctors just speculating in the void. It makes you wonder if economists really believe in what they do.

  4. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    26. August 2009 at 10:25

    ‘…hasn’t there been some academic research on this? It’s hard to believe there hasn’t.’

    You’re correct,
    Ed Glaeser
    , for instance on a potential HSR line between Dallas and Houston (the fourth and sixth largest cities in the US):

    ‘…I estimated that if the rail link had the same ridership as all airlines now connecting the two cities (1.5 million), then annual costs would exceed the direct benefits to riders by $546 million. In another post, I estimated the environmental and other social benefits from 1.5 million riders to be $21.6 million, excluding the environmental costs of building the rail line.

    ‘These numbers suggest that costs will exceed benefits each year by $524 million if the rail line has 1.5 million customers, and by $401 million if the region’s rail demand has a huge rate of growth and attracts three million riders.’

  5. Gravatar of Lorenzo (from downunder) Lorenzo (from downunder)
    26. August 2009 at 12:31

    I agree, President Gore would have been very likely to have invaded Iraq too. And Obama is running into similar problems that the Clinton’s did in 1992-94 over health care. It is difficult to balance “constraints are real” with “policy choices still matter” but both seem to be true.

  6. Gravatar of JeffreyY JeffreyY
    26. August 2009 at 13:01

    Gore would certainly have led us into Afghanistan, but Iraq took a series of lies to get into. Anyone who didn’t already want to go in there wouldn’t have told the lies, so we wouldn’t have gone in. Looking tough would have been accomplished quite well enough by trouncing Afghanistan.

  7. Gravatar of Mr. Winston Mr. Winston
    26. August 2009 at 13:03

    E.A. Robinson wrote a poem about someone unhappy with his circumstances. My apologies to him in this re-creation:

    Paul Krugman, child of scorn,
    Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
    He wept that he was ever born,
    And he had reasons.

    Krugman loved the days of old
    When Keynes was god and fiscal policy fancy;
    The vision of a liberal bold
    Would set him dancing.

    Krugman sighed for what was not,
    Universal healthcare, unions full of labor;
    He dreamed of France and Spain a lot,
    And Sweden’s neighbors.

    Krugman mourned Friedmans renown
    That made M2 sound so fragrant;
    He longed for trains, from town to town.
    Reason? …a vagrant.

    Krugman loved Utopia,
    Albeit he had never seen it;
    He would pen fibs most copiously
    Could he just try it.

    Krugman loved the common man
    And eyed a khaki-suit with loathing;
    He missed the New Deal grace
    Of blue-collar clothing.

    Krugman scorned the gold he sought,
    But sore annoyed was he without it;
    Krugman thought, and thought, and thought,
    And thought about it.

    Paul Krugman, pitying his fate,
    Scratched his head and kept on hoping
    That this brainless country full of ingrates,
    Would just stop thinking.

  8. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    26. August 2009 at 14:02

    The idea is called the “fundamental attribution error”, which seems closely related to the “near vs far bias” Robin Hanson often discusses.

    Megan McArdle seems to share your perspective on the political culture of America being different from other countries no matter the administration, which is why she thinks universal health care won’t control costs here.

    Bush and others in his administration were pushing for war with Iraq well before 9/11, that just gave them the opportunity because Afghanistan didn’t sate Americans’ appetite for revenge (basically “the Ledeen doctrine”). I don’t have reason to believe Gore would have been the same (I think he would have been less of a pushover for his vice president), though he likely would have engaged in some mini-wars of the sort we saw under Clinton.

  9. Gravatar of Current Current
    26. August 2009 at 14:18

    TGGP, what Scott is talking about is an old idea. Have you read the bit about intellectual influences in “The Road to Serfdom”?

    Did you see my last post here?
    http://blogsandwikis.bentley.edu/themoneyillusion/?p=2093#comments

  10. Gravatar of Robert Robert
    26. August 2009 at 15:02

    If you want to access any website in China, just use a proxy website. Done9.com has been consistently working for me.

  11. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. August 2009 at 15:13

    Brian, I agree with both of your posts. I am often surprised when other people are surprised to find out I supported the war but later viewed it as a mistake. But I would never blame Bush for my miscalculation. I blame Saddam. I never imagined he would fake trying to get WMD in order to scare his opponents. Lesson; never try to put yourself into the mind of a warmongering tyrant.

    But you are right, people don’t like to admit that their mistakes are their own fault, especially about an important issue like going to war.

    Phil, Because I am in China I have a hard time finding the information I need. But I have read research that suggests high speed rail won’t work in America. And it seemed pretty convincing to me.

    Thanks Patrick.

    Lorenzo, Wow, this is a good way to quickly find people who agree with me. A few minutes ago I din’t know anyone–now I know several people.

    Jeffrey, The problem is that the hawks would have continued to pressure Gore. Can you imagine Leiberman’s reaction if Gore refused to invade Iraq? I don’t think Gore could have withstood the pressure.

    As with any war there were some lies or exaggerations or whatever you want to call them. But they had no impact on the decision to invade Iraq, and they had no impact on who supported the war and who didn’t. Hillary Clinton and Al Gore both had access to the latest intelligence on Iraq in early 2001 when they were still in power. And they reached different conclusions after 9/11. It wasn’t about facts, it was all about interpretation of those facts.

    Mr. Winston. Thanks for the poem.

    TGGP, On health care we have created a monster that can’t be controlled. If we as a political culture aren’t able to control the waste in farm subsisdies, when farmers are less than two percent of the population, then we have no chance against a special interest group that already controls 16% of GDP, and won’t be satisfied until they have much more. I wish I had an answer. I favor the Singapore system which takes about 5% of GDP, but I don’t see how we get from here to there.

    Hanson has done a lot of good stuff on bias–I don’t doubt he has already discussed the ideas mentioned here. And I agree with McArdle about our political culture being different.

    Current, I actually think economists have a lot of influence on monetary policy. I think Fed policy usually represents the consensus view of the top 100 economists. My goal is to change Fed policy not by changing Bernanke’s mind, but by changing the mind of the profession as a whole. (Yes, I know, I have a snowball’s chance. . . )

    I much prefer Keynes’ approach to Hayek’s. I think Hayek made a huge mistake in ignoring the Great Depression. I think economists have much more influence over monetary policy than do politicians.

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. August 2009 at 15:20

    Thanks Robert.

  13. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    26. August 2009 at 16:17

    Scott, your idea on pressure reminds me of this Caplan post on Tolstoy.

    I also believed Saddam had WMD (I knew he had them before and didn’t know they expired if not maintained). Nevertheless, I was completely opposed to the war. Why? I’m a libertarian who knows Hayek doesn’t stop at the water’s edge, and of all the activities governments engage in, war is the most negative-sum (as well as generating vicious cycles and other unintended consequences) and demanding of the utmost scrutiny. You knew that the war would result in deaths, you knew it was a war of choice, you claim to be a Rorty-esque liberal who thinks suffering is the worst thing in the world, and you supported it anyway. It is not Saddam who is to blame for your mistake. It is you.

    Current, I’m a bit confused about the relevance of your comment in that other thread. Also, you can link directly to a comment using the hyperlink in red that displays the date and time of that comment.

  14. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    27. August 2009 at 00:08

    I’ve also long been on the same page with you re Gore & Iraq.

    This seems a no brainer to me.

  15. Gravatar of Current Current
    27. August 2009 at 00:24

    TGGP: “I’m a bit confused about the relevance of your comment in that other thread. Also, you can link directly to a comment using the hyperlink in red that displays the date and time of that comment.”

    I don’t know how to do hyperlinks like that.

    Scott wrote: “Elections are very important, but mostly because of the fact that we have them. The real action is in changing the zeitgeist, not who ekes out an election victory.”

    The point is that changing the zeitgeist is what is important. That takes decades, but it can be done. It was in Britain at least for a time.

    Scott though doesn’t seem to agree with me.

    Scott: “I actually think economists have a lot of influence on monetary policy. I think Fed policy usually represents the consensus view of the top 100 economists. My goal is to change Fed policy not by changing Bernanke’s mind, but by changing the mind of the profession as a whole. (Yes, I know, I have a snowball’s chance. . . )

    I much prefer Keynes’ approach to Hayek’s. I think Hayek made a huge mistake in ignoring the Great Depression. I think economists have much more influence over monetary policy than do politicians.”

    But you’ve just said above, “I have a snowball’s chance …”!?

    The influence economists have on politicians is that politicians may be able to use their ideas to garner support from their electorates. I agree that the top 100 economists are influential in that role. However, I don’t think it is a respectable job for an economist to work on helping the jackals con the jackasses into voting for them.

    A much broader group than politicians are important.

  16. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. August 2009 at 03:18

    TGGP, Those are all good arguments. And in retrospect I agree. By the way, I am generally an isolationist. If we hadn’t gone to war with Iraq in 1991, I certainly would have opposed the second Iraq war. WWII was the only 20th century war that I thought was justified (from the US perspective.)

    I thought it was a disgrace what we did to the Iraqi people after the first war, at a minimum we owed them a Saddam-free government. The Iraqi soldiers we dropped bombs on in the first war weren’t there by choice, Saddam forced them. So we killed the soldiers and left Saddam in charge—that’s not libertarianism. (I understand you also opposed the first war, I’m just saying that I saw the second one as finishing the job.) In retrospect that was also a mistake. I may do a post on what I think went wrong in Iraq, which is not the conventional view.

    Thanks Greg.

    Current, I said I don’t have much chance of influencing policy. But I’m not one of the top 100 macroeconomists, so there is no conflict.

    If economists don’t advise politicians on public policy questions, who do you propose they look to? Sociologists?

  17. Gravatar of Current Current
    27. August 2009 at 03:49

    Scott: “I said I don’t have much chance of influencing policy. But I’m not one of the top 100 macroeconomists, so there is no conflict.

    If economists don’t advise politicians on public policy questions, who do you propose they look to? Sociologists?”

    But, you should to talk to a wider audience than politicians.

    Politicians come to economists looking for excuses to do things that will make themselves temporarily popular. Such as inflation and large deficits.

    What economists need to do is to present their ideas to a quite broad group of people, including other economists, commentators, journalists, business leaders and opposition politicians. The point of doing this *isn’t* just to make politicians in power aware of these ideas. It is best if all the other groups I mention, and as many of the electorate as possible, understand them too.

    If only politicians know them they will abuse them for their own ends. Even if they don’t the battle must be fought again once the government changes.

    As you said earlier the “zeitgeist” must be changed. I think this is what you’re aiming to do, even if you’re arguing with me about this point.

  18. Gravatar of William William
    27. August 2009 at 04:25

    Since we’re taking a vote, can I add that I also think Gore would have gone to war with Iraq? And to prove that I’m not just piling on, here’s some <a href="http://tatulln.wordpress.com/2009/01/14/the-constraints-of-leadership/"time-stamped evidence.

  19. Gravatar of mdb mdb
    27. August 2009 at 05:34

    You can’t mention Jiouzhaigou without mentioning Huang Long, an amazing 5 color lake in the mountains an hour away ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huanglong,_Sichuan ). Or the Panda Preserve just outside the city. I liked Chengdu much better than any other city in China, but Xian was close second (I liked the food – kind of like Chinese-Italian – a lot of noodle and dumpling dishes)

  20. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    27. August 2009 at 07:27

    Interesting.

    On the opposite side of the fence (philosophically) stand the group of historians who believe in path dependency, who take deep issue with historical determinism. Their world view borrows heavily from biology and chaos theory.

    While you may be right that much of the US is determined by its character, some Presidents have risen to the challenge and truly helped the country shift direction. Not most, certainly, but a handful of exceptional ones. Along this line, my dissappointment with Team Obama is not that such-and-such policy wasn’t enacted in precisely the way I would like. Rather, I am dissappointed with his general mode of operation, which has been disastrous. His approach to new legislation is:

    Formulate a general ideal of idea.

    Kick the can down the road (literally) to Congress, and tell them to create legislation by a particular date.

    The result has been entirely predictable: a series of bills, all of which are easily criticized and many of which are deeply flawed. The highest praise for these bills has been “They aren’t great, but they’re better than the status quo.” Perhaps he hoped for a true “compromise” to emerge, but instead Congress has operated in the way that Congress is structurally built to operate – slowly, and with great interest from parochial interests, and great tension from the political parties.

    Obama seems unable to actually put a stake in the ground and say “this is MY bill, this is what I support.” Everything is up for negotiation (and when Congress negotiates, special interests dominate the discussion). Perhaps he is seeking to avoid blame for any failures (his administration has a noted tendency to leak plans, test the waters in the press, and then make tweaks).

    Health care is simply the most glaring example of what is emerging as a consistent Presidential style, and that style marks him as anything other than an agent of true change that he had sold himself as. I am not actually surprised, in the sense that I never actually had really high expectations. And certainly he is considerably better than what we had for the last 8 years (IMHO, I do _not_ think Gore would have invaded Iraq in 2003. You write that Gore was hawkish, and I agree he would have invaded somewhere – but not Iraq. Unlike the Id1iot-in-Chief at the time, he probably would have invaded Afghanistan, and you can argue about the relative merits of that decision).

    History has examples of exceptional leadership bring meaningful and beneficial change – rare, but real. But I am skeptical that it will happen now. I am still hoping to be surprised, however. The first signal of a change will be when Team Obama actually proposed their OWN piece of major legislation.

  21. Gravatar of Jeremy, Alabama Jeremy, Alabama
    27. August 2009 at 08:10

    Excellent article.

    A president’s power and options are very limited – *reactively*, that is. Going to war is a great example of reaction, and is the reason I agree with you that Al Gore would have attacked Iraq.

    But presidents also have political capital to spend on proactive initiatives. Would you agree that this can have significant long term effect? Would you agree that Democrats are better at this strategic game than Republicans? For instance, Reaganomics is practically undone, but immigration-from-the-south policy plus federalization of education has created an important zeitgeist shift to the left. Can you identify equivalent Republican policies, policies that have shifted the zeitgeist to the right?

  22. Gravatar of Zdeno Zdeno
    27. August 2009 at 08:22

    Interesting post.

    I agree that it is the shifting zeitgeist, rather than the year to year fortunes of various political parties that actually affects policy. Over the past 200 or so years of American history, political parties have come and gone, but the political centre has been tacking leftward the whole time. Who cares if the D’s or R’s win any given election, if the “Right” is defined down every generation from Harding, to Reagan, to McCain? The minuscule fluctuations around the political centre that result from elections and politics are just noise – the zeitgeist is the signal, and that’s where the true power can be found

    But now we have an important question to answer: What is this mysterious Z-force? It seems to wield absolute power over the policies that govern us. Maybe it’s just the noble march of reason and truth, steadily advancing through the ages. That theory would certainly make sense to a leftist. Everyone else ought to be a little suspicious though.

    Cheers,

    Zdeno

  23. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    27. August 2009 at 08:56

    You’re welcome Scott. Another good source for debunking High Speed Rail (and other transportation manias) is Wendell Cox. Here he takes on the Obamathusiasm for HSR:

    ‘…virtually all of the money spent to build the nation’s highway system and its major airports has been paid for by users of the system. Highway users have paid for intercity highways with their state and federal fuel taxes. Airport users have paid for the airports and the air traffic control system with taxes on their tickets. Put directly, if you don’t use the highway or airport system, you don’t pay. Indeed, not only do highway users pay for highways, but at the federal level, their funds provide 8 times as much revenue to transit per passenger mile as to highways.

    ‘Passenger rail finance is another matter. Generally, users pay less than one-half the total costs of passenger rail. The rest comes from taxpayers. If passenger rail were financed the same way as highways and airports, it would be largely paid for – both capital and operating costs – by fares and by taxes on tickets. Of course that would not work, because passenger rail is far more costly than the highway and airport competition. Today, Amtrak fares per passenger mile are more than double that of the airlines per passenger mile, and that is before the heavy subsidies received by Amtrak.

    ‘Indeed, the most recent data provided by the Department of Transportation indicates that the federal government made a profit of $1.00 per 1,000 passenger miles on the highway program while subsidizing passenger rail $210 and transit $159 per 1,000 passenger miles.’

  24. Gravatar of Current Current
    27. August 2009 at 09:03

    Statsguy: “On the opposite side of the fence (philosophically) stand the group of historians who believe in path dependency, who take deep issue with historical determinism. Their world view borrows heavily from biology and chaos theory.”

    I’m not sure they’re necessarily “on the opposite side of the fence”. You can agree tentatively with what Scott has written above and still disagree with historical determinism in the more general sense.

  25. Gravatar of Lawrence H. White Lawrence H. White
    27. August 2009 at 11:44

    Scott: “I think we all listen to our friends, relatives, and colleagues complain about their predicament, and then silently think, ‘Well what do they expect? Their predicament perfectly reflects their character.’”

    As the insightful demotivational poster (http://despair.com/dysfunction.html) puts it: “The only consistent feature of all your dissatisfying relationships is you.”

  26. Gravatar of Tom F Tom F
    27. August 2009 at 14:00

    Add me into the Gore & Iraq camp as well. If you go back and read Bush’s campaign positions the Middle East was barely mentioned.

    Simple fact of the matter is that the UN sanctions were unravelling anyways and that would have generated pressure to “do something” sooner or later no matter who was in office.

    And as someone who’s actually bothered to read the declassified intelligence memos on Iraq’s WMD in their entirety:

    1) The European intelligence community… including France and Germany’s… thought Iraq still maintained WMD programs, and;

    2) The actual amount of chemical weapons in question were thought to be roughly 100 tons of so. Or not much to hide in a place the size of Iraq.

    Everyone thought he had programs being maintained in potentia at the time… as the ongoing presence of UNMOVIC right up until the start of the invasion of Iraq attests to… it was what to do about it that everyone disagreed on.

  27. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    28. August 2009 at 05:31

    Funny enough, within evolutionary biology there are also squabbles between determinists and those who think everything is contingent.
    http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~cook/movabletype/archives/2005/03/contingency_and_1.html

    I’m a consistent determinist.

  28. Gravatar of Current Current
    28. August 2009 at 06:14

    TGGP,

    There is a difference between determinism in scientific problems and historical determinism. We may agree that on the physical level there is determinism, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that we can create laws of history. Even if we can for evolution of life it doesn’t follow that the problems of the social sciences are the same.

    There are strong relationships between economics and evolutionary biology. Evolution arose in a large part from ideas for economics. Stephen Jay Gould’s punctuated equilibrium theory is straight out of Marx’s Capital, diminishing rates of profit, dialectic materialism, the lot.

    There’s a good discussion of nature v. nurture in “The Constitution of Liberty”. Hayek points out that both sides have completely clueless ideas of what views about nature and nurture imply in the wider social sense.

  29. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    29. August 2009 at 15:43

    I am liberal and a Krugman reader, but this was an excellent post. I did find Krugman’s post flimsy, as they sometimes are. I’m glad there’s at least one economic blogger who sticks to the economics and doesn’t let partisanship cloud too many issues.

    More importantly, the central theme of the post is very interesting and perhaps largely, if not completely true. An older McNamara said that he wanted to get rid of nuclear weapons. Democrats usually have argued more forcefully for staying out of major wars, yet WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam (the major escalation), were all under Democratic presidents.

    It definitely is the culture within specific circumstances that are usually more important than the leaders they choose, or the media they complain about for that matter.

  30. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. August 2009 at 17:22

    Current, I agree with almost all of your comment about seeking a wider audience than just politicians, and changing the zeitgeist. But I can’t help commenting on this:

    “Politicians come to economists looking for excuses to do things that will make themselves temporarily popular. Such as inflation and large deficits.”

    Can we then infer that a left-wing President of the US would not reappoint a Republican central banker who presided over deflationary monetary policies?

    William, Thanks, there are many more of us than I thought.

    mdb, We missed the panda center, but did see Huang Long. But as pretty as Huang Long is, it reminded me of similar ponds in other volcanic areas. Jiouzhaigou is one of a kind site (as far as I know.) Returning from Huang Long in the taxi, my wife was on oxygen for altitude sickness. The driver took us up a twisty mountain road with no railing, passing buses on the oncoming lane. Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, it gets foggy. Then as if that wasn’t bad enough, his cell phone rings, and he starts an animated conversation with only one hand on the wheel. It sounded like he was arguing, but then Sichuan people always sound that way to Americans, because they are loud talkers.

    Anyway, not for the faint-hearted.

    Statsguy, You said;

    “Obama seems unable to actually put a stake in the ground and say “this is MY bill, this is what I support.””

    This is precisely what Bill and Hillary tried, and it was disastrous. Obama reacted to their mistake, by taking the opposite tack. It also isn’t working. Is it possible that tactics aren’t as important as we think, and instead that the world is more determinstic than it looks?

    I hoped he would support Ron Wyden’s approach, which had some Republican support. But that also might have run into trouble, as those on the Democratic left would have been furious that he immediately tore up a campaign promise. And Obama himself doesn’t seem to believe in that approach. He just wants something passed, figuring he can fix it later when there is less focus on the issue. And he still may get what he wants.

    You said,

    “Unlike the Id1iot-in-Chief at the time, he probably would have invaded Afghanistan, and you can argue about the relative merits of that decision).”

    I have no idea what that means. Bush did invade Afghanistan, and you can’t “argue about the relative merits of that decision.” There are only two slam dunk foreign policy decisions in American history; attacking Japan after they killed thousands of Americans, and attacking Afghanistan after they killed thousands of Americans. There was no decision to be made by the US (The Taliban faced a decision over whether to ally themselves with Al Qaeda. And made the wrong one.)

    Jeremy; You said;

    “But presidents also have political capital to spend on proactive initiatives. Would you agree that this can have significant long term effect? Would you agree that Democrats are better at this strategic game than Republicans? For instance, Reaganomics is practically undone, but immigration-from-the-south policy plus federalization of education has created an important zeitgeist shift to the left. Can you identify equivalent Republican policies, policies that have shifted the zeitgeist to the right?”

    I don’t agree that the decisions have long term effect. We would have a social security system whether FDR set it up or not. It he hadn’t Truman or Johnson would have. Every major country in the world cut MTRs sharply during the 1980s-1990s.

    And I do not agree that Reagan’s reforms are reversed. The immigration issue that you mention was actually a part of Reaganomics–he supported amnesty. His big issues were:

    1. Win the cold war
    2. Tough on crime
    3. Much lower MTRs
    4. Less regulation of industry
    5. Abolish price controls
    6. smaller government
    7 A bigger military

    We still won the cold war, crime is still half the level of the 1980s and prisons are still overflowing, top MTRs are still much lower than 1980 (the top personal rate is higher than when Reagan left office, but the capital gains and dividend rates are much lower.) Deregulation of transport and other industries is mostly intact. Price controls are still abolished. Government has grown, but right before the crisis hit was still only a bit higher than when Reagan left office. And the military is still big.

    More to come . . .

  31. Gravatar of Current Current
    29. August 2009 at 17:25

    Mike Sandifer: “Democrats usually have argued more forcefully for staying out of major wars, yet WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam (the major escalation), were all under Democratic presidents.”

    The same is true in the UK. I think the reason is that both parties tend to be very optimistic about how much good they can do abroad.

  32. Gravatar of Current Current
    29. August 2009 at 17:39

    Scott: “Can we then infer that a left-wing President of the US would not reappoint a Republican central banker who presided over deflationary monetary policies?”

    Well, not very many people think that Bernanke has carried out “deflationary” monetary policies. I see your point, but the conventional wisdom isn’t with you (as we’ve being saying). The presidents advisers probably think, along with the conventional wisdom that Bernanke is all for loose money.

    (And I would agree with them to some extent. I still don’t agree with this idea that monetary policy is deflationary if NGDP doesn’t expand by 5% per year. I think it’s deflationary if NGDP doesn’t expand.)

    Regarding marginal tax rates and the determinism of history. Many government cut taxes after Laffer recommended it. Was it inevitable that Laffer or someone like him would arise in the 1980s? (Many people had been making Laffer’s basic point for years, even centuries, I think it’s in Adam Smith).

  33. Gravatar of Jon Jon
    29. August 2009 at 17:46

    Well, not very many people think that Bernanke has carried out “deflationary” monetary policies. I see your point, but the conventional wisdom isn’t with you (as we’ve being saying). The presidents advisers probably think, along with the conventional wisdom that Bernanke is all for loose money.

    My reaction too when reading the news reports of this. Seriously, he couldn’t have played a better game to get renominated if he had tried.

  34. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. August 2009 at 17:55

    Zdeno, The mysterious force that keeps advancing is called “liberalism” and it is neither a left nor a right wing phenomenon. In many ways Clinton was far to the right of FDR. Clinton opposed government ownership of industry, planning the economy through NIRA, high MTRs on the rich, etc. Clinton supported welfare reform, NAFTA, etc. So I don’t believe we always move the the left. In many ways the entire world moved to the right after 1980. But we do always move in a liberal direction, that’s because liberals always redefine the word to mean whatver the consensus of intellectuals thinks is best. Sometimes liberals believe in socialism, other times in capitalism. And sometimes something in between.

    Patrick, I agree. In fairness one could argue that the numbers would change with a Pigovian carbon tax, but I stil don’t think HSR would come out ahead. It would probably be buses and airplanes.

    Current#2, I agree with you. Statsguy is certainly right that my view leans in the deterministic direction, but only in a very limited set of cases (such as democracy.) I think that random events (bad luck) had a lot to do with the Great Depression and WWII. Redo history 100 times, and I’ll bet only a handful have as bad a first half of the 20th century as Europe had.

    Thanks Larry, That’s a very insightful line, and a very sobering one for all of us to think about.

    Sometimes I wonder why Boston drivers are such jerks. But in rare moments of lucidity I realize the problem is all in my head; compared to most developing countries the drivers are fine, my frustration is due to the fact that my driving style is different from theirs.

    Thanks Tom F, (Are you Tom Friedman?) :)

    I agree, although I also understand why the war’s opponents feel frustrated with our views. After all, they were right.

    Off topic—how do the conspiracy nuts (the people that believe everything from moon landings to 9/11 was staged) explain why no chemical weapons were “found” in Iraq? Wouldn’t it be easier to plant a few canisters, than to stage the whole 9/11 attack?

    TGGP, I agree with you. In an earlier post I made fun of people who confused science and politics, comparing them to atheletes who thought God supported their team. Another example is in the area of homosexuality; the left tends to think being gay is genetic, whereas the right thinks gays can be “cured.” So people cherry-pick determinism whenever it suits their purpose, and vice versa.

    Current#3, I agree that determinism is more appropriate in some areas than others.

    Thanks Mike, those are good points. BTW, I think it would be a great idea to get rid of all nuclear weapons. I predict it will occur in the mid-21st century (safely past my lifespan so I won’t know if I’m proved wrong.) I plan an “end of history” post soon, which will explain why I am an optimist.

  35. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    30. August 2009 at 18:27

    I think the association of Democrats with being anti-war is relatively recent.

    I agree with Scott on liberals redefining liberalism depending on what’s currently popular. Someone else made the point in response to a thesis Zdeno is implicitly citing here:
    http://hertzlinger.blogspot.com/2008/05/if-progressive-politics-are-religion-i.html

  36. Gravatar of Current Current
    31. August 2009 at 00:55

    The view of gradual progress was first held by the Whigs in Britain. I arose from classical liberal historians, T.B. Macaulay in particular. I agree that those who call themselves liberals now often hold it, but I don’t think it’s an item of faith.

    MacAulay: “It is now the fashion to place the golden age of England in times when noblemen were destitute of comforts the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman, when farmers and shopkeepers breakfasted on loaves the very sight of which would raise a riot in a modern workhouse, when to have a clean shirt once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry, when men died faster in the purest country air than they now die in the most pestilential lanes of our towns, and when men died faster in the lanes of our towns than they now die on the coast of Guiana.

    We too shall, in our turn, be outstripped, and in our turn be envied. It may well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the carpenter at Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that labouring men may be as little used to dine without meat as they now are to eat rye bread; that sanitary police and medical discoveries may have added several more years to the average length of human life; that numerous comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty working man.

    And yet it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy, when the rich did not grind the faces of the poor, and when the poor did not envy the splendour of the rich.”

    That quote is from the “History of England” from 1845.

    I suppose the modern liberals may have appropriated the word liberal especially because of the sense of destiny that the 19th century Whigs gave it.

    Scott: “do I don’t believe we always move the the left. In many ways the entire world moved to the right after 1980.”

    In some ways perhaps, but not in every way. It is true that the left no longer have the same passion for centrally directing industry.

    But, they have plenty of other passions to make up for it. Regulation for example, I don’t know about the US, but in the UK most of the most intrusive regulations are quite recent.

    Also, leftist governments have a new-found passion for changing the social order. The smoking bans for example, and things like bans on trans-fats. And of-course surveillance, identity cards, CCTV cameras and the database state.

  37. Gravatar of Levi Levi
    31. August 2009 at 05:46

    In an earlier post I discussed overcoming our inclination to believe that our side of the political dispute is good and the other side is evil. (Call it the Krugman/Limbaugh misconception.)

    Karl Popper wrote in the first essay in Conjectures and Refutations that this sort of inclination results from a belief that the truth is manifest. He calls it the conspiracy theory of truth. When someone disagrees with you, you tend to reflexively think that the person is ignorant of some facts of the world or is aware of those facts and is denying the truth in order to derive some sort of benefit. This is because we assume that it ought to be the case that different people can look at the same set of data and infer the same conclusion(s).

  38. Gravatar of JimP JimP
    31. August 2009 at 10:38

    Another convert:

    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d69a0a48-9594-11de-90e0-00144feabdc0.html

  39. Gravatar of rob rob
    31. August 2009 at 11:02

    I believe Ambrose Bierce, in 1906, gave the best definition of a liberal: “Someone who, in an argument, won’t take his own side.”

  40. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    31. August 2009 at 11:35

    ssumner:

    “you can’t “argue about the relative merits of that decision.” There are only two slam dunk foreign policy decisions in American history; attacking Japan after they killed thousands of Americans, and attacking Afghanistan after they killed thousands of Americans.”

    The comment was rhetorical. I meant _you_ can argue about the relative merits of that decision, which clearly you aren’t.

    With regard to invading Afghanistan and Bush II, 2001 was a special forces incursion (and kudos to those guys, who accomplished a lot with insufficient support), not a full scale invasion. In 2002, we had only 10,000 under-resourced troops on the ground in a country with 250,000 square miles (approximately 24 times the size of massachusetts, which by comparison has about twice that many police officers active in the state which manage a docile population). In 2004, by contrast, we had 140,000 troops in Iraq. Fourteen times as many.

    http://newsimg.bbc.co.uk/media/images/45490000/gif/_45490161_afghanss1.gif

    http://www.iraqslogger.com/images_full_column/p10b_popup.gif

    I strongly doubt that Gore, or for that matter anyone with even a modicum of competence (like McCain) would have under-resourced Afghanistan to such an extent to pursue Saddam Hussein. While I’m hardly a conspiracy theorist, there is mounting evidence that intelligence was mismanaged (and probably deliberately manipulated) to support the case for invasion. And in terms of “national character” and historical determinism, Iraq was an aberration rather than the norm. The initiation of the Bush Doctrine reflected a dramatic change in US foreign policy. I do not think that Gore would have, or even could have (with Republicans in the opposition) initiated such an interventionist nation-building foreign policy.

    So when you write that “Al Gore would have led us into Iraq” because he was a hawk and distrustful of Saddam… that Presidents don’t go to war, countries do… That history would have probably happened just the same way (or close enough) I think you oversimplify.

    But as I noted earlier, the theoretical core of your post is historical determinism vs. path dependency (which includes puntuated equillibrium and chaos theory and so forth, as Current discusses). But humans have a tendency to reify history, believing that what happened was in some way destined to happen. That, indeed, things always happen for a reason (other than chance).

    The moral core of your post contrasts personal (or national) responsibility with the excuse of bad luck… But historical determinism is just as much of an excuse for failure. Chance and Fate are two sides of the same coin, and neither is the friend of free will.

  41. Gravatar of Tom F Tom F
    31. August 2009 at 13:24

    Tom Friedman? Sadly no… merely a plebe who has an interest in economics.

    @TGGP re: “I think the association of Democrats with being anti-war is relatively recent.”

    I think if you look at most of the people in the Bush administration that were neo-cons most of them had tied to the Democratic party hawks from the sixties and seventies. Senator Jackson in particular.

    One does kind of have to wonder though what the situation with Iran would look like right now had the UN sanctions collapsed and Iraq under Hussien had re-armed rather than having had the invasion take place.

  42. Gravatar of Current Current
    1. September 2009 at 05:53

    Levi: “Karl Popper wrote in the first essay in Conjectures and Refutations that this sort of inclination results from a belief that the truth is manifest. He calls it the conspiracy theory of truth.”

    Yes, it’s interesting that Scott mentions this when discussing these subjects.

    Folks, interested in this sort of thing should read Jeffrey Friedman’s stuff:
    http://www.criticalreview.com/crf/jeffreyfriedman.html

    Especially “Popper, Weber, and Hayek: The Epistemology and Politics of Ignorance.”

  43. Gravatar of Tom F Tom F
    1. September 2009 at 14:50

    @StatsGuy: “I do not think that Gore would have, or even could have (with Republicans in the opposition) initiated such an interventionist nation-building foreign policy.”

    Sadly that view overlooks the Democrats history under Clinton in the Balkans and in Somalia.

    And it also overlooks the willing collusion of the so-called Liberal “humanitarian” interventionists with the Neo-Cons in the lead up to Iraq. Or namely some of the people who are now pushing for nation building in Afghanistan which is probably more of a ridiculous environment to try it in than Somalia.

    Go back and look at the Democrats voting record at the time for proof of who supported the invasion. The WMD issue was a convenient tissue for all sorts of people to agree on a reason for the invasion in both parties. The impetus would have been there no matter who was in office.

  44. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    2. September 2009 at 05:22

    Current, NGDP has not just been rising at less than 5%, it has fallen by nearly 4%.

    I agree that if it wasn’t for Laffer, someone else would have pushed the idea of tax cuts. It was in the zeitgeist (and I think Mundell may have persuaded Laffer, BTW.)

    Jon, I agree that the profession thinks Bernanke has run an expansionary monetary policy. Look for my Voxeu.org piece which should appear on September 10th. It is a frontal assault on pretty much the entire economics profession, for falling into the trap of assuming money has been “easy.”

    TGGP, Yes, you are right about the Democrats. BTW, they became the anti-war party about the time our “enemies” became what many liberals view as “victims.” I.e., our primary enemies in recent decades have been third world countries. A good case study of this transformation could be made my studying how “liberal” attitudes toward Israel have changed since 1967. Once the Palestinians started being seen as victims, liberal support for Israel began to erode.

    Levi, That’s exactly right. Krugman is constantly implying that those who disagree with him must be either fools or knaves.

    Current, I agree with your views on the history of liberalism. I think most liberals take the “Whig view of history” for the long term, but don’t see every twist and turn as reflecting “progress.”

    JimP, Thanks for pointing that out. He presents some good arguments that the Fed could have done much more. But most American economists keep insisting that rates can’t be cut below 0.25%. That the Fed has done all it could. I have no idea why.

    Thanks rob, I enjoy Bierce whenever I read him, I need to look at his book of aphorisms (is that the correct term?) sometime.

    Statsguy, I am certainly not a historical determinist, as I think individuals make a huge different in non-democratic countries like Iraq, and some difference even in the US. I would gladly concede that Gore might not have gone into Iraq, my point was that it was much more likely that the US would go in regardless of the election than most people realize.

    You said;

    “Chance and Fate are two sides of the same coin, and neither is the friend of free will.”

    I have never seen a coin land on its edge, and until I do I will continue to doubt the existence of free will. Earlier I expressed skepticism about objective truth, today I added a postscipt doubting personal identity, maybe tomorrow I should go after free will. I’ll be the world’s first monetarist post-modernist.

    I am very skeptical of the notion that our problems in Afghanistan have much to do with a lack of troops. More troops equal more targets.

    I agree that the intelligence was puffed up a bit, but certainly no more than in any other war in history–hence I doubt it made any difference at all. Anyone with an ounce of common sense filters that out. I think Democratic Congressman Gephardt said it best when he said something to the effect that “look, the Clinton people saw the same intelligence as the Bush people, and they were telling us the same things. I didn’t trust BUsh, I trusted what I heard from Democratic foreign policy experts.” This is nowhere near an exact quotation, but it gets at the gist of Gephardt’s statement.

    I (foolishly) put on a lot of weight on the fact that the European intelligence services also thought Saddam was seeking WMD.

    Tom F, Another interesting counterfactual is what if Bush had struck a deal with Iran right after the spring 2003 “victory” in Iraq, which impressed even the Iranians. Some think they were ready do deal in exchange for recognition, but I claim no knowledge in this area.

    Thanks Current, I’ll try to look at the Jeffrey Friedman piece.

    TomF, Yes, and I forgot to mention that Gore was one of the very few to vote for the 1991 invasion, which might have been an even bigger mistake in retrospect than 2003 (not so much kicking Saddam out of Iraq, but kicking him out and them leaving him in power.)

  45. Gravatar of Current Current
    2. September 2009 at 06:11

    Scott: “NGDP has not just been rising at less than 5%, it has fallen by nearly 4%.”

    I had a look at the data, and I see what you mean. My main point is that conventional wisdom doesn’t regard this as deflationary. You’re quite right though that I should.

    Scott: “I have never seen a coin land on its edge, and until I do I will continue to doubt the existence of free will. Earlier I expressed skepticism about objective truth, today I added a postscipt doubting personal identity, maybe tomorrow I should go after free will. I’ll be the world’s first monetarist post-modernist.”

    You would be the second monetary post-modernist after Marx.

    The problem with the debate about free-will is that it’s generally badly phrased. The point Statsguy and I are making though isn’t about natural sciences, but the social sciences. Just because underlying physics may be deterministic (or partially random) doesn’t mean that we will ever be able to understand the path of social history.

  46. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    2. September 2009 at 07:40

    Jeet Heer made the same point about Israel, except he was talking about conservatives:
    http://sanseverything.wordpress.com/2008/02/25/when-conservatives-loved-the-palestinians/
    A lot of the stuff back then involved jockeying for client states in the Cold War. Someone once claimed that Stalin supported Israel in the early days (before the Soviets switched to supporting Arabs) just because he figured it would wind up giving the West a headache down the road! A further oddity is that during WW2 many anti-colonialists (typically associated with the left) were on the side of the Axis, since the biggest overseas empires were among the Allies.

    You probably saw via Marginal Revolution Katja Grace’s take on determinism and free will, but I’ll link it here anyway.

  47. Gravatar of Current Current
    2. September 2009 at 08:11

    Katja Grace wrote: “The closest thing you can have to free will is for your actions to be determined purely by the state of your brain. Free will is determinism. “

    That’s an old idea, I was going to mention it, it’s called “compatibilism”. I generally agree with it.

    From “Artificial Intelligence: A Philosophical Introduction”: “Even if Peter is a deterministic system it remains the case that he and he alone is responsible for his decision, and that had his beliefs, desires and so forth been appropriately different he would have decided differently. Deterministic Peter’s decision was surely caused and free – free in that it was caused by Peter’s own desires, inclinations, etc.”

  48. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    2. September 2009 at 10:51

    ssumner: “I have never seen a coin land on its edge, and until I do I will continue to doubt the existence of free will.”

    Apparently, it happens surprisingly frequently: 1 in 6000 throws, if the coin is flipped fairly on a flat surface.

    http://www.codingthewheel.com/archives/the-coin-flip-a-fundamentally-unfair-proposition

  49. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. September 2009 at 04:36

    Current, I agree that there is a significant random element in history. My point is that it is far more important in dictatorships than in democratic countries (or even countries ruled by committees, like China.)

    TGGP, Unfortunately, I have trouble linking to things in China.

    Another irony vis-a-vis Israel is that conservatives used to be more anti-semitic than liberals, but (in the US) are now often Israel’s strongest supporters. And anti-semites used to accuse Jews of not being militaristic enough, preferring business to warfare. Now Israel is accused of being too militaristic. You can’t win.

    Current, Yes, that has always been my view of free will.

    Statsguy, I wouldn’t have thought the odds were that high, but then I once saw a bar of soap land on end in a shower, and that also seemed a long shot to me.

  50. Gravatar of Kiruha Kiruha
    26. September 2009 at 19:50

    Хорошо, давайте обсудим это в отдельной теме. Хотя это не столь важно.

  51. Gravatar of Military Metaphors in Politics/Political Economy « feed on my links Military Metaphors in Politics/Political Economy « feed on my links
    31. May 2010 at 10:09

    [...] the post, he refers to Scott Sumner who once made the claim that “Presidents don’t go to war, countries go to war” and then [...]

  52. Gravatar of Oh, that’s just X being X… « The Droning Inquisition Oh, that’s just X being X… « The Droning Inquisition
    27. August 2010 at 22:02

    [...] X being X… One of my favorite posts from Scott Sumner’s The Money Illusion blog starts thusly I think we all listen to our friends, relatives, and colleagues complain about their predicament, [...]

  53. Gravatar of Reid Deetz Reid Deetz
    26. September 2010 at 04:38

    Interest in coastal properties is on the rise in the UK and is indicative of a changing mindset, it has been claimed.

  54. Gravatar of Making Waves « feed on my links Making Waves « feed on my links
    2. March 2011 at 04:20

    [...] Sumner’s had what I’m sure he would say was a provocative idea: I seem to be the only person in the world who thinks Al Gore would have led us into [...]

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