I wish I had been invited to an online conversation on the New York Times website between David Brooks and Gail Collins called The Propeller Head’s Dilemma. Here are a couple of snips and what I imagine i might have added.
David Brooks, speaking about his concern that Obama’s “propeller heads,” consumed by a lack of humility and attachment to reality, might be steering the good ship wrong . . .
This is going to unleash the familiar debate on what should be the role of policy intellectuals in the White House. Some dumb Republicans are going to get some mileage by attacking the idea of a White House run by geeks. Some smug Democrats are going to claim that of course they have intellectuals since they are the party of reason and intellect.
The correct position is the one held by self-loathing intellectuals, like Isaiah Berlin, Edmund Burke, James Madison, Michael Oakeshott and others. These were pointy heads who understood the limits of what pointy heads can know. The phrase for this outlook is epistemological modesty, which would make a fine vanity license plate.
The idea is that the world is too complex for us to know, and therefore policies should be designed that take account of our ignorance. Whether the Obama administration understands this is an open question.
To which Gail Collins responds, after dismissing whatever concerns Brooks and his like have about stimulating in general . . .
As to the banks — and the automakers — so far our problem has been too little faith in government rather than too much. We got into this mess by presuming that the private sector was inherently smarter than pointy-headed bureaucrats. But over and over during the past eight years, from Iraq to prescription-drug pricing, we’ve seen that the private sector is frequently both dumber and less efficient than government.
The private sector got us into the savings and loan crisis during the ’80s, and who got us out of it? Was it … the government?
Leaving aside that as usual, the conservative and the liberal are talking past each other a bit, I wonder if the central insight in the whole argument has been lost? The point I think is ultimately about “values.”
Pop quiz: When someone in the private sector makes a decision to do something, say loosen credit criteria, what values do they trade for? Probably something like, “more market share,” or maybe “better share price.” But at the end of the day, it’s presumably the criteria used to choose, what I’m referring to as “values,” are all in service of our shareholders. And while that’s not a hugely specific thought, it is more specific than “the public.”
In other word, a nice example of the tragedy of the commons. Every one of the actors is optimizing for their sense of what’s valuable with no regard to the total system.
And what of the reviled public servant? Well they don’t have shareholders. That’s the bad news but it’s also the good news. What the propeller head economists are doing, that the private guys aren’t, is solving for the commons, for the good of the system, for the good of the people.
In both cases, let’s stipulate that individuals acting in both the public and private spaces are equally capable of good and bad thinking, honor and venality, putting personal interests first, and on and on. But in this case, I’m with Gail Collins. The collective we need to focus on the commons at this point.
Tags: tragedyof the commons, liberal, conservative, propeller head, decision making