Wednesday, September 07, 2005

High Variance, Low Expectation

Yay Democracy:

A brief comment on the subject of this game, which, apparently, it's a bad idea to play. First off -- it's not a game. Assigning blame is a deadly serious matter. It's also integral to any sort of viable social practice. The criminal justice system relies on assigning blame to various people and punishing them. So does the civil tort system, and so does the non-criminal regulatory system. So, for that matter, does any kind of coherent business or non-profit enterprise -- when mistakes are made, you need to decide who's to blame for them, and ensure that the culpable are sanctioned. If you don't identify and punish the blameworthy, then people will have no reason to try to do their jobs correctly.
Politics is the same way. There's a very serious principle-agent problem associated with public policy -- the interests of government officials tend to diverge quite sharply from those of the citizens they're supposed to be serving. This is why dictatorships tend, in practice, to ill-serve their citizens and be beset by corruption, malgovernment, and all kinds of other problems. In democracies we try, through elections and the ability of elected officials to fire their subordinates, to align those incentives. The way that works is that when bad things happen, people are supposed to blame someone, and then elect someone else to replace him. For that to do any good, you need to "play the blame game," which is to say find out who's actually responsible.

Let me start off by saying that I honestly don’t know how much the Administration was responsible for poor disaster relief in New Orleans. Bush was on vacation, military money was diverted from the Army Corps of Engineers to Iraq, a Bush crony with no emergency experience was in charge of FEMA. All these things make good talking points for Democrats, but it’s not clear they really matter. Bush probably doesn’t run things any less than he does when he’s in DC itself, the levees probably would have been overwhelmed anyway, and maybe Michael Brown is as good as management as is needed. We still have thousands of experienced bureaucrats who actually run these operations, and I really don’t know how much their daily activities were affected by Bush being brush cutting or that Brown couldn’t even run the Arabian Horse Assocation. It is simply outside my range of knowledge.
Here’s an extended metaphor: Bush and his friends are high stakes poker plays. As a poker play it’s extremely hard in the short term to tell how skilled you are. One hand, you’re opponent is dealt pocket queens, you get pocket kings, you both bet aggressively and quickly go all in, and suddenly you’re up $2000 in 2 minutes. There are many poker players I’ve seen get cocky about their abilities in this quick turn of events.

But an hour later, you get pocket kings again, the same guy bets aggressively, you go all in, and he calls… with pocket aces. Now you’re down that $2000. This happens to everyone, and is part of the gamble of poker. You’re just not going to get out of that situation, and losing in it says no more about your skill than winning the previous one did.

You have to look at how you do in the long term. How you do in all the small pots with action. And whether you lose $2000 more often than you win it. If you don’t keep a very detailed watch, well, it’s easy to think you’re a great player who just happens to be broke at the moment because of recent bad luck.

Bush was dealt a great hand in 9/11, and I never felt he did much to earn the praise he earned. It was a slam-dunk, to reassure the country, threaten our vague enemies, and help rebuild New York. It’s complicated to explain how something can both be the result of luck, and yet we should still give him credit. Basically, he was dealt pocket kings and the opponents got pocket queens. In the long term, it will still even out and we’ll still be able to see whether he was a good leader or not.

Well this is the long term. I honestly don’t know if there was anything he could do to avoid the scope of this disaster, but even if there was absolutely no moral fault here, it’s something he was due. The other guy finally got pocket aces. Whatever up he got from his “leadership” in 9/11, he’s now losing from his “mismanagement” of New Orleans.

So you just go looking to other things. How has he managed the thousands more decisions he’s made as President. Has he gained public support from his foreign policy, his management of the economy, his stewardship of the environment?

I guess a simpler metaphor is: Live by the sword, die by the sword.


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