Friday, November 29, 2013

Obama, Ideology, And Time Horizons

FLG read this with some interest:
The president said something recently that I believe was interesting and underreported.‎ At a Democratic campaign fundraiser, the president said he was “not a particularly ideological person.” Assuming he meant it, that was a remarkable thing to say, given that Republicans think of him as a classic liberal ideologue. How did so many get the wrong idea? The president doesn’t see an ideological bent in his actions; he sees himself doing what needs to be done without any ideological motivation.
This is a self-conception that FLG, probably unsurprisingly, attributes to time horizons.  Here's what FLG wrote a few years ago about Ezra Klein's claim that Republican preference for smaller government is  counter-balanced by a preference for larger government, not broadly, only where it makes sense.

Liberals, always desiring to be rational, empirical, and scientific, naturally focus on what can be easily measured. This necessarily means limiting one's focus. For example, when conservatives worried/worry about death panels because of health reform, Ezra points out that the bill in question doesn't contain anything like them. That's an empirical, fact-based statement. But it also doesn't address the real issue, which is that health care reform will require cost controls and those cost controls presumably will fall on those who account for the most costs, which means people toward the end of life, which means death panels. It's not about the specifics of the health care bill, but the incentives it sets up. The road where it leads in the long run.
My point here is that despite the pretensions of those who would use government of they're being rational, scientific, and most importantly practical, they in fact hold an ideological position that policy makers can gather enough information and use it effectively enough that unintended consequences are mitigated. And to do that one must necessarily limit the scope of their analysis, for practical reasons, to the near term. 
It's a question of Bastiat's seen and unseen consequences:
In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them
 When you start trying to foresee the the longer term effects of a policy the certainty of any policy position, especially with something as complicated as health care, becomes far less certain.  But here's the thing, what you often here in response to concerns about longer term effect from these so-called practical, non-ideological people is one deep skepticism or outright hostility.   It is unavoidable that the precision with which we can predict the effects of a policy diminishes with the longer the time horizon of the analysis becomes.  For the non-ideological, practical liberal this lack of certainty and precision of effects far off in the future means they can be dismissed.

The concern about death panels was dismissed as fear mongering or lying.  The practical, non-ideological response was that there were no death panels in the law.  But that isn't exactly the point the critics were making.  The issue is that the trajectory of the health law and the stated goal of cost control through increased government involvement in the health sector logically leads to something like death panels.  That it does not exist in the law, as an empirical fact, is almost irrelevant.  

To these practical, non-ideological thinkers, however, concerns about long-term consequences, which are not empirically verifiable in the present, is misguided at best, often viewed as irrational, and at worst view as downright immoral.

So, Obama is downright blind to his ideology because his entire way of thinking is rooted in an empirical, short-term analysis.  Long-term concerns are almost inherently non-empirical (because how can you empirically measure concerns about the distant future), and so are dismissed as self-evidently irrational.   Thus, he is non-ideological because he reaches the only conclusion dictated by the demonstrably empirical facts and the an analysis limited to the short-term effects of his policies.

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