Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Is this a defense?

In reporting that a Republican-led House Probe Blasts Katrina Preparation, the AP says of the report:
It also found that Bush could have speeded the response by becoming involved in the crisis earlier and says he was not receiving guidance from a disaster specialist who would have understood the scope of the storm's destruction.

"Earlier presidential involvement might have resulted in a more effective response," the inquiry concluded.

White House spokesman Allen Abney declined to comment Tuesday night. On Monday, White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend said Bush was "fully involved" in Washington's preparations and response to Katrina.
Is it better that the (Western) White House mismanaged the preparations and response to Katrina, or that they were simply not involved? Would you prefer to believe that the President wasn't looped in, and if he had, things might have been better, or would you rather believe that the President tried his best and still screwed up massively? Because the latter is the White House spin.

It's not what I'd like to think about the failures.

The best case would be that the White House, upon being warned about the impending flooding of New Orleans, would have sprung into action, pushing to slice through red tape and giving FEMA all the power it needed to get people out of the city, to preposition materials, and to coordinate with other agencies.

The second best would be that the White House was not kept in the loop, that mid-level staffers neglected to adequately brief the President, and that his failure to kick things into high gear can be laid at someone else's feet.

The worst case is that the President was fully and adequately briefed by experts, but decided he'd trust his gut rather than the warnings of professionals (Katrina determined to strike America).

This plays into a broader point. It's one that I've made before, and I thought I coined a phrase for it.

First the Onion stole "Intelligent Falling", now I thought the Project on Government Oversight stole "the war on expertise":
Citing recent reports about efforts to silence government scientists on the subject of global warming, Beth Daly, of the watchdog group the Project on Government Oversight, said Hoekstra's letters were part of a Republican "campaign against expertise."

"These complaints," she told UPI, "are part of their campaign against accurate information, against science."
With a little Googling, I found that I probably stole the term from an excellent article by Josh Marshall, who looked at the mess the administration made of stem cells and the hash they made of tying Iraq and al-Qaeda in 2003, then made the broad point:

Look at just about any policy or department of government and you're likely to see the same pattern. In July, Slate's Russ Baker reported that the Bush administration "muzzles routine economic information that's unfavorable." Last year, the administration simply stopped issuing a report that tracks factory closings throughout the country, the better to hide evidence of mass layoffs. The report was reinstated only after The Washington Post happened to notice the cancellation, disclosed only in a footnote to the Department of Labor's final report for 2002, issued on Christmas Eve.

In any White House, there is usually a tension between the political agenda and disinterested experts who might question it. But what's remarkable about this White House is how little tension there seems to be. Expert analysis that isn't politically helpful simply gets ignored.

Educated, liberal-leaning professionals are apt to see this conflict as an open-and-shut case: Expertise should always trump ideology. This has been the case for over a century, ever since Progressive Era reformers took on corrupt city machines and elevated technocratic expertise above politics.

Everyone is compromised by bias, agendas, and ideology. But at the heart of the revisionist mindset is the belief that there is really nothing more than that. Ideology isn't just the prism through which we see world, or a pervasive tilt in the way a person understands a given set of facts. Ideology is really all there is. For an administration that has been awfully hard on the French, that mindset is...well, rather French.…

Doctrinaire as they may be in the realm of policy, the president's advisors are the most hard-boiled sort of pragmatists when it comes to gaining and holding on to political power. And there's no way they planned to head into their reelection campaign with a half-trillion-dollar deficit looming over their heads and an unpredictable, bleeding guerrilla war in Iraq on their hands. At the level of tactics and execution, the administration's war on expertise has already yielded some very disappointing, indeed dangerous results. And if that gets you worried, just remember that the same folks are in charge of the grand strategy too.
I seem to have first used the term in criticizing Fire Dennis Moore (now Fire Kansas Democrats) for their preference for dataless speculation over the wisdom of people with experience and expertise. They were out of their depth, talking about polling methodology and flaws in well-respected polls without knowing what the hell they were talking about. I said (2005):

This matters because bitching about polls like FDM is doing is a minor but typical example of the Republican war on expertise. Not all Republicans are part of this war, but those who are, deserve nothing but scorn. Just as Senator Inhofe believes that he's a better judge of the state of climate science than the community of climate scientists, FDM think they know better than the community of pollsters how to handle partisan identification.
Elsewhere, Richard Perry shows how "the politicization of intelligence has been a goal of neoconservative operatives for three decades," and I'll recommend Bamford's A Pretext for War as a good history of the recent failures that resulted from that practice.

Chris Mooney's thesis in The Republican War on Science easily generalizes to this war on expertise. It's the idea that facts don't matter, the famous quote given to Ron Suskind (and quoted by Mooney) from a "senior adviser" to the President that this administration rejects "the reality based community," motivated by the idea that "solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." The adviser continued "That's not the way the world really works anymore." Mooney looked at pressure on government scientists and editing of scientific reports by political appointees, as well as the way industry uses cooked up studies to stall any effort to regulate dangerous industries, or the way religious groups stir up social controversy to interfere with scientists' and science educators' best advice on how to teach science. That's the war on science. When the same tactics are applied outside that community, it's a war on expertise, or a Colbert-esque war on facts.

You see it everywhere. If we don't tell anyone that the Vice-President shot a 78 year-old Republican lawyer in the face, maybe it didn't really happen. If we say Saddam was trying to buy uranium from Niger, maybe it'll be true. Some true believers still insist that the Iraqi WMD are just buried in the Syrian desert. Why trust discernible reality when ideology is so much more appealing?

On the point Marshall makes above about economic hijinx, I'll just point to this post by Brad DeLong about the disappearing budget graphs.

With Ohio backing away from ID, we may be seeing a small shift back toward sanity. The people standing up to Take Back Kansas are insisting, whether they're Republican or Democratic, that reality should guide policy. And as I've said, that's how Governor Sebelius has operated, and we can hope she'll continue her record of sensible, evidence-driven policy.

Evidence, ideology/values, and policy are a triangle. All three are important, and when one comes to dominate, you get trouble. When cutting taxes is the solution to any problem, you have policy dominating evidence and ideology, and the results are awful. When you ignore evidence because you think your ideology is more important, things get out of whack. For too long, Democrats have campaigned as if evidence were enough to justify their policy proposals, and that's equally flawed. There are values at work. The American public largely shares those values. But without an appeal to the shared value, the policy seems to come out of a hat.

There is a better way, and I'm always glad to see that people are working toward it.