Leaders in the public and private sector in advanced economies, typically highly credentialed, have with very few exceptions shown abject incompetence in dealing with coronavirus as a pathogen and as a wrecker of economies. The US and UK have made particularly sorry showings, but they are not alone.
It’s become fashionable to blame the failure to have enough medical stockpiles and hospital beds and engage in aggressive enough testing and containment measures on capitalism. But as I will describe shortly, even though I am no fan of Anglosphere capitalism, I believe this focus misses the deeper roots of these failures.
After all the country lauded for its response, South Korea, is capitalist. Similarly, reader vlade points out that the Czech Republic has had only 2 coronavirus deaths per million versus 263 for Italy. Among other things, the Czech Republic closed its borders in mid-March and made masks mandatory. Newscasters and public officials wear them to underscore that no one is exempt.
Even though there are plenty of examples of capitalism gone toxic, such as hospitals and Big Pharma sticking doggedly to their price gouging ways or rampant production disruptions due to overly tightly-tuned supply chains, that isn’t an adequate explanation. Government dereliction of duty also abound. In 2006, California’s Governor Arnold Schwarznegger reacted to the avian flu by creating MASH on steroids. From the LA Times:
They were ready to roll whenever disaster struck California: three 200-bed mobile hospitals that could be deployed to the scene of a crisis on flatbed trucks and provide advanced medical care to the injured and sick within 72 hours.
Each hospital would be the size of a football field, with a surgery ward, intensive care unit and X-ray equipment. Medical response teams would also have access to a massive stockpile of emergency supplies: 50 million N95 respirators, 2,400 portable ventilators and kits to set up 21,000 additional patient beds wherever they were needed…
“In light of the pandemic flu risk, it is absolutely a critical investment,” he [Governor Schwarznegger] told a news conference. “I’m not willing to gamble with the people’s safety.”
They were dismantled in 2011 by Governor Jerry Brown as part of post-crisis belt tightening.
The US for decades has as a matter of policy tried to reduce the number of hospital beds, which among other things has led to the shuttering of hospitals, particularly in rural areas. Hero of the day, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo pursued this agenda with vigor, as did his predecessor George Pataki.
And even though Trump has made bad decision after bad decision, from eliminating the CDC’s pandemic unit to denying the severity of the crisis and refusing to use government powers to turbo-charge state and local medical responses, people better qualified than he is have also performed disastrously. America’s failure to test early and enough can be laid squarely at the feet of the CDC. As New York Magazine pointed out on March 12:
In a functional system, much of the preparation and messaging would have been undertaken by the CDC. In this case, it chose not to simply adopt the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 test kits — stockpiling them in the millions in the months we had between the first arrival of the coronavirus in China and its widespread appearance here — but to try to develop its own test. Why? It isn’t clear. But they bungled that project, too, failing to produce a reliable test and delaying the start of any comprehensive testing program by a few critical weeks.
The testing shortage is catastrophic: It means that no one knows how bad the outbreak already is, and that we couldn’t take effectively aggressive measures even we wanted to. There are so few tests available, or so little capacity to run them, that they are being rationed for only the most obvious candidates, which practically defeats the purpose. It is not those who are very sick or who have traveled to existing hot spots abroad who are most critical to identify, but those less obvious, gray-area cases — people who may be carrying the disease around without much reason to expect they’re infecting others…Even those who are getting tested have to wait at least several days for results; in Senegal, where the per capita income is less than $3,000, they are getting results in four hours. Yesterday, apparently, the CDC conducted zero tests…
[O]ur distressingly inept response, kept bringing to mind an essay by Umair Haque, first published in 2018 and prompted primarily by the opioid crisis, about the U.S. as the world’s first rich failed state
And the Trump Administration has such difficulty shooting straight that it can’t even manage its priority of preserving the balance sheets of the well off. Its small business bailouts, which are as much about saving those enterprises as preserving their employment, are off to a shaky start. How many small and medium sized ventures can and will maintain payrolls out of available cash when they aren’t sure when and if Federal rescue money will hit their bank accounts?
How did the US, and quite a few other advanced economies, get into such a sorry state that we are lack the operational capacity to engage in effective emergency responses? Look at what the US was able to do in the stone ages of the Great Depression. As Marshall Auerback wrote of the New Deal programs:
The government hired about 60 per cent of the unemployed in public works and conservation projects that
- planted a billion trees,
- saved the whooping crane,
- modernized rural America, and
- built such diverse projects as the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh,
- the Montana state capitol,
- much of the Chicago lakefront,
- New York’s Lincoln Tunnel and Triborough Bridge complex,
- the Tennessee Valley Authority and
- the aircraft carriers Enterprise and Yorktown. It also
- built or renovated 2,500 hospitals,
- 45,000 schools,
- 13,000 parks and playgrounds,
- 7,800 bridges,
- 700,000 miles of roads, and
- a thousand airfields. And it
- employed 50,000 teachers,
- rebuilt the country’s entire rural school system, and
- hired 3,000 writers,
- sculptors and painters,
- including Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
What are the deeper causes of our contemporary generalized inability to respond to large-scale threats? My top picks are a lack of respect for risk and the rise of symbol manipulation as the dominant means of managing in the private sector and government.
Risk? What Risk?
Thomas Hobbes argued that life apart from society would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Outside poor countries and communities, advances in science and industrialization have largely proven him right.
It was not long ago, in historical terms, that even aristocrats would lose children to accidents and disease. Only four of Winston Churchill’s six offspring lived to be adults. Comparatively few women now die in childbirth.
But it isn’t just that better hygiene, antibiotics, and vaccines have helped reduce the scourges of youth. They have also reduced the consequences of bad fortune. Fewer soldiers are killed in wars. More are patched up, so fewer come back in coffins and more with prosthetics or PTSD. And those prosthetics, which enable the injured to regain some of their former function, also perversely shield ordinary citizens from the spectacle of lost limbs.1
Similarly, when someone is hit by a car or has a heart attack, as traumatic as the spectacle might be to onlookers, typically an ambulance arrives quickly and the victim is whisked away. Onlookers can tell themselves he’s in good hands and hope for the best.
With the decline in manufacturing, fewer people see or hear of industrial accidents, like the time a salesman in a paper mill in which my father worked stuck his hand in a digester and had his arm ripped off. And many of the victims of hazardous work environments suffer from ongoing exposures, such as to toxic chemicals or repetitive stress injuries, so the danger isn’t evident until it is too late.
Most also are oddly disconnected from the risks they routinely take, like riding in a car (I for one am pretty tense and vigilant when I drive on freeways, despite like to speed as much as most Americans). Perhaps it is due in part to the illusion of being in control while driving.
Similarly, until the coronavirus crisis, even with America’s frayed social safety nets, most people, particularly the comfortably middle class and affluent, took comfort in appearances of normalcy and abundance. Stores are stocked with food. Unlike the oil crisis of the 1970, there’s no worry about getting petrol at the pump. Malls may be emptying out and urban retail vacancies might be increasing, but that’s supposedly due to the march of Amazon, and not anything amiss with the economy. After all, unemployment is at record lows, right?
Those who do go to college in America get a plush experience. No thin mattresses or only adequately kept-up dorms, as in my day. The notion that kids, even of a certain class, have to rough it a bit, earn their way up and become established in their careers and financially, seems to have eroded. Quite a few go from pampered internships to fast-track jobs. In the remote era of my youth, even in the prestigious firms, new hires were subjected to at least a couple of years of grunt work.
So the class of people with steady jobs (which these days are well-placed members of the professional managerial class, certain trades and those who chose low-risk employment with strong civil service protections) have also become somewhat to very removed from the risks endured when most people were subsistence farmers or small town merchants who served them.
Consider this disconnect, based on an Axios-Ipsos survey:
The coronavirus is spreading a dangerous strain of inequality. Better-off Americans are still getting paid and are free to work from home, while the poor are either forced to risk going out to work or lose their jobs.
Generally speaking, the people who are positioned to be least affected by coronavirus are the most rattled. That is due to the gap between expectations and the new reality. Poor people have Bad Shit Happen on a regular basis. Wealthy people expect to be able to insulate themselves from most of it and then have it appear in predictable forms, like cheating spouses and costly divorces, bad investments (still supposedly manageable if you are diversified!), renegade children, and common ailments, like heart attacks and cancer, where the rich better the odds by advantaged access to care.
The super rich are now bunkered, belatedly realizing they can’t set up ICUs at home, and hiring guards to protect themselves from marauding hordes, yet uncertain that their mercenaries won’t turn on them.
The bigger point is that we’ve had a Minksy-like process operating on a society-wide basis: as daily risks have declined, most people have blinded themselves to what risk amounts to and where it might surface in particularly nasty forms. And the more affluent and educated classes, who disproportionately constitute our decision-makers, have generally been the most removed.
The proximity to risk goes a long way to explaining who has responded better. As many have pointed out, the countries that had meaningful experience with SARS2 had a much better idea of what they were up against with the coronavirus and took aggressive measures faster.
But how do you explain South Korea, which had only three cases of SARS and no deaths? It doesn’t appear to have had enough experience with SARS to have learned from it.
A related factor may be that developing economies have fresh memories of what life was like before they became affluent. I can’t speak for South Korea, but when I worked with the Japanese, people still remembered the “starving times” right after World War II. Japan was still a poor country in the 1960s.3 South Korea rose as an economic power after Japan. The Asian Tigers were also knocked back on their heels with the 1997 emerging markets crisis. And of course Seoul is in easy nuke range of North Korea. It’s the only country I ever visited, including Israel, where I went through a metal detector to enter and saw lots of soldiers carrying machine guns in the airport. So they likely have a keen appreciation of how bad bad can be.
The Rise and Rise of the Symbol Economy
Let me start with an observation by Peter Drucker that I read back in the 1980s, but will then redefine his take on “symbol economy,” because I believe the phenomenon has become much more pervasive than he envisioned.
A good recap comes in Fragile Finance: Debt, Speculation and Crisis in the Age of Global Credit by A. Nesvetailova:
The most significant transformation for Drucker was the changed relationship between the symbolic economy of capital movements, exchange rates, and credit flows, and the real economy of the flow of goods and services:
…in the world economy of today, the ‘real economy’ of goods and services and the ‘symbol economy’ of money, credit, and capital are no longer bound tightly to each other; they are indeed, moving further and further apart (1986: 783)
The rise of the financial sphere as the flywheel of the world economy, Drucker noted, is both the most visible and the least understood change of modern capitalism.
What Drucker may not have sufficiently appreciated was money and capital flows are speculative and became more so over time. In their study of 800 years of financial crises, Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff found that high levels of international capital flows were strongly correlated with more frequent and more severe financial crises. Claudio Borio and Petit Disyatat of the Banks of International Settlements found that on the eve of the 2008 crisis, international capital flows were 61 times as large as trade flows, meaning they were only trivially settling real economy transactions.
Now those factoids alone may seem to offer significant support to Drucker’s thesis. But I believe he conceived of it too narrowly. I believe that modeling techniques, above all, spreadsheet-based models, have removed decision-makers from the reality of their decisions. If they can make it work on paper, they believe it will work that way.
When I went to business school and started on Wall Street, financiers and business analysts did their analysis by hand, copying information from documents and performing computations with calculators. It was painful to generate financial forecasts, since one error meant that everything to the right was incorrect and had to be redone.
The effect was that when managers investigated major capital investments and acquisitions, they thought hard about the scenarios they wanted to consider since they could look at only a few. And if a model turned out an unfavorable-looking result, that would be hard to rationalize away, since a lot of energy had been devoted to setting it up.
By contrast, when PCs and Visicalc hit the scene, it suddenly became easy to run lots of forecasts. No one had any big investment in any outcome. And spending so much time playing with financial models would lead most participants to a decision to see the model as real, when it was a menu, not a meal.
When reader speak with well-deserved contempt of MBA managers, the too-common belief that it is possible to run an operation, any operation, by numbers, appears to be a root cause. For over five years, we’ve been running articles from the Health Renewal Blog decrying the rise of “generic managers” in hospital systems (who are typically also spectacularly overpaid) who proceed to grossly mismanage their operations yet still rake in the big bucks.
The UK version of this pathology is more extreme, because it marries managerial overconfidence with a predisposition among British elites to look at people who work hard as “must not be sharp.” But the broad outlines apply here. From Clive, on a Brexit post, when Brexit was the poster child of UK elite incompetence:
What’s struck me most about the UK government’s approach to the practical day-to-day aspects of Brexit is that it is exemplifying a typically British form of managerialism which bedevilles both public sector and private sector organisations. It manifests itself in all manner of guises but the main characteristic is that some “leader” issues impractical, unworkable, unachievable or contradictory instructions (or a “strategy”) to the lower ranks. These lower ranks have been encouraged to adopt the demeanour of yes-men (or yes-women). So you’re not allowed to question the merits of the ask. Everyone keeps quiet and takes the paycheck while waiting for the roof to fall in on them. It’s not like you’re on the breadline, so getting another year or so in isn’t a bad survival attitude. If you make a fuss now, you’ll likely be replaced by someone who, in the leadership’s eyes is a lot more can-do (but is in fact just either more naive or a better huckster).
Best illustrated perhaps by an example — I was asked a day or two ago to resolve an issue I’d reported using “imaginative” solutions. Now, I’ve got a a vivid imagination, but even that would not be able to comply with two mutually contradictory aims at the same time (“don’t incur any costs for doing some work” and “do the work” — where because we’ve outsourced the supply of the services in question, we now get real, unhideable invoices which must be paid).
To the big cheeses, the problem is with the underlings not being sufficiently clever or inventive. The real problem is the dynamic they’ve created and their inability to perceive the changes (in the same way as swinging a wrecking ball is a “change”) they’ve wrought on an organisation.
May, Davies, Fox, the whole lousy lot of ’em are like the pilot in the Airplane movie — they’re pulling on the levers of power only to find they’re not actually connected to anything. Wait until they pull a little harder and the whole bloody thing comes off in their hands.
Americans typically do this sort of thing with a better look: the expectations are usually less obviously implausible, particularly if they might be presented to the wider world. One of the cancers of our society is the belief that any problem can be solved with better PR, another manifestation of symbol economy thinking.
I could elaborate further on how these attitudes have become common, such as the ability of companies to hide bad operating results and them come clean every so often as if it were an extraordinary event, short job tenures promoting “IBG/YBG” opportunism, and the use of lawyers as liability shields (for the execs, not the company, natch).
But it’s not hard to see how it was easy to rationalize away the risks of decisions like globalization. Why say no to what amounted to a transfer from direct factory labor to managers and execs? Offshoring and outsourcing were was sophisticated companies did. Wall Street liked them. Them gave senior employees an excuse to fly abroad on the company dime. So what if the economic case was marginal? So what if the downside could be really bad? What Keynes said about banker herd mentality applies:
A sound banker, alas! is not one who foresees danger and avoids it, but one who, when he is ruined, is ruined in a conventional and orthodox way along with his fellows, so that no one can really blame him.
It’s not hard to see how a widespread societal disconnect of decision-makers from risk, particularly health-related risks, compounded with management by numbers as opposed to kicking the tires, would combine to produce lax attitude toward operations in general.
I believe a third likely factor is poor governance practices, and those have gotten generally worse as organizations have grown in scale and scope. But there is more country-specific nuance here, and I can discuss only a few well, so adding this to my theory will have to hold for another day. But it isn’t hard to think of some in America. For instance, 40 years ago, there were more midsized companies, with headquarters in secondary cities like Dayton, Ohio. Executives living in and caring about their reputation in their communities served as a check on behavior.
Before you depict me as exaggerating about the change in posture toward risks, I recall reading policy articles in the 1960s where officials wrung their hands about US dependence on strategic materials found only in unstable parts of Africa. That US would never have had China make its soldiers’ uniforms, boots, and serve as the source for 80+ of the active ingredients in its drugs. And America was most decidedly capitalist in the 1960s. So we need to look at how things have changed to explain changes in postures towards risk and notions of what competence amounts to.
1 One of my early memories was seeing a one-legged man using a crutch, with the trouser of his missing leg pinned up. I pointed to him and said something to my parents and was firmly told never to do anything like that again.
2 The US did not learn much from its 33 cases. But the lack of fatalities may have contributed.
3 Japan has had a pretty lame coronavirus response, but that is the result of Japan’s strong and idiosyncratic culture. While Japanese are capable of taking action individually when they are isolated, in group settings, no one wants to act or even worse take responsibility unless their is an accepted or established protocol.
Episode 1 tell us how the egos of Maj. Gen. Charles V.F. Townshend, Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery and Gen. Douglas MacArthur led to disaster for their troops.
We have long saluted military genius and bravery. But the other side of the coin is military incompetence – a largely preventable, tragically expensive, yet totally absorbing aspect of human behaviour.
From the Crusades to Vietnam, history is littered with examples of stupidity, obduracy, brutality and sheer breath-taking incompetence. Lack of communication, technological failure and a misplaced sense of superiority have led to the deaths of thousands of ordinary soldiers, let down by their masters and betrayed by arrogance. Using a combination of history, human interest and archive footage underpinned by powerful story-telling, Great Military Blunders charts man’s folly and cruelty in a series of stunning debacles, spanning almost a thousand years of conflict.
Want to watch more full-length Documentaries?
Click here: goo.gl/zCIIDC
Content licensed from Digital Rights Group (DRG).
Produced by Darlow Smithson Productions.
There is a pathological mismatch between the qualities that seduce us in a leader and those that are needed to be an effective leader. Based on research on the psychology of leadership, Chamorro-Premuzic shows that if leaders were selected on competence rather than confidence, humility rather than charisma, and integrity rather than narcissism, we would not just end up with more competent leaders, but also more women leaders. In fact, he argues, the main obstacle preventing competent women from becoming leaders is the lack of career obstacles for incompetent men. Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in psychological profiling, talent management, leadership development, and people analytics. He is the Chief Talent Scientist at Manpower Group, co-founder and CEO of DeeperSignals and Metaprofiling, and Professor of Business Psychology at both University College London, and Columbia University. He has previously held academic positions at New York University and the London School of Economics, and lectured at Harvard Business School, Stanford Business School, London Business School, Johns Hopkins, IMD, and INSEAD, as well as being the CEO at Hogan Assessment Systems. Dr. Tomas has published 10 books and over 150 scientific papers, making him one of the most prolific social scientists of his generation. His work has received awards by the American Psychological Association and the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology, to which he is a Fellow. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.
Yet the government never had a plan for keeping track of the separated parents and children once they were in custody, and, even after a federal judge in San Diego, Dana Sabraw, ordered the government to reunite them, it struggled to comply. “I definitely haven’t seen contrition,” an Administration official, who told me about the weekly meetings, said. “But there was frustration with the incompetence of how zero tolerance got implemented. From the perspective of the political leaders here, there’s recognition of how badly the policy failed.” The lesson, according to the official, didn’t seem to be that the Administration had gone too far in separating families but, rather, that “we need to be smarter if we want to implement something on this scale” again.
.. The main focus, the official added, has been to “map out” how the government can detain asylum seekers as they wait for a hearing before an immigration judge, which can take several months: “The job is to model all the steps in the process. If we go after families, where do we detain them? What are the resources required at each step?”
.. To date, no one in the Trump Administration has been held accountable for its family-separation policy, even after evidence has steadily mounted as to its immense human costs and administrative failures.
.. The government’s own data show that it has had no appreciable effect on migration patterns throughout the summer, but the Administration pursued the policy anyway
.. the prime movers behind zero tolerance were members of a “cabal of anti-immigration guys” at the White House, the D.H.S., and the Department of Justice. Stephen Miller and a Justice Department adviser named Gene Hamilton
.. They want to have a different America, and they’re succeeding. Now they’re doubling down—they’re making another run at lowering the number of refugees who are admitted to the United States.
.. The failure of the zero-tolerance policy has done little, if anything, to diminish the group’s standing; on the contrary, Miller has only seemed to gain allies in the government. Within the President’s inner circle, according to the Times, he is considered a “walking policy encyclopedia” on immigration.
.. it was Border Patrol agents at C.B.P., not ice officers, who took children from their parents’ arms.
.. During the summer, the commissioner of the agency, Kevin McAleenan, denied that the Trump Administration was deliberately separating families, even as he directed implementation of a policy doing just that.
.. Ronald Vitiello, the deputy commissioner of C.B.P. and a law-enforcement veteran, was tapped to replace Thomas Homan as the director of ice.
.. Some five hundred and sixty children are still separated from their parents, including twenty-four who are five years old or younger
.. families face a choice: either a parent and child can agree to be deported together, or the child can stay in this country alone while her own case is decided.
.. I asked the current Administration official whether the outcry over family separation had caught the government by surprise. It had, the official said. “The expectation was that the kids would go to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, that the parents would get deported, and that no one would care.” Yet, when it became clear that the public did, the Administration chose not to change course.
America’s child president had a play date with a KGB alumnus, who surely enjoyed providing day care. It was a useful, because illuminating, event: Now we shall see how many Republicans retain a capacity for embarrassment.
.. Jeane Kirkpatrick .. she explained her disaffection from her party: “They always blame America first.” In Helsinki, the president who bandies the phrase “America First” put himself first, as always, and America last, behind President Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Because the Democrats had just held their convention in San Francisco, Kirkpatrick branded the “blame America first” cohort as “San Francisco Democrats.” Thirty-four years on, how numerous are the “Helsinki Republicans”?
.. He speaks English as though it is a second language that he learned from someone who learned English last week. So, it is usually difficult to sift meanings from Trump’s word salads. But in Helsinki he was, for him, crystal clear about feeling no allegiance to the intelligence institutions that work at his direction and under leaders he chose.
.. consider Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), who for years enjoyed derivative gravitas from his association with Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). Graham tweeted about Helsinki: “Missed opportunity by President Trump to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections.” A “missed opportunity”
.. Contrast Graham’s mush with this on Monday from McCain, still vinegary: “Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” Or this from Arizona’s other senator,
Jeff Flake (R): “I never thought I would see the day when our American president would stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression.” Blame America only.
.. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and others might believe that they must stay in their positions lest there be no adult supervision of the Oval playpen. This is a serious worry, but so is this: Can those people do their jobs for someone who has neither respect nor loyalty for them?
.. The most innocent inference is that for decades he has depended on an American weakness, susceptibility to the tacky charisma of wealth, which would evaporate when his tax returns revealed that he has always lied about his wealth, too.
.. A more ominous explanation might be that his redundantly demonstrated incompetence as a businessman tumbled him into unsavory financial dependencies on Russians.
A still more sinister explanation might be that the Russians have something else, something worse, to keep him compliant.
.. Trump has a weak man’s banal fascination with strong men whose disdain for him is evidently unimaginable to him. And, yes, he only perfunctorily pretends to have priorities beyond personal aggrandizement. But just as astronomers inferred, from anomalies in the orbits of the planet Uranus, the existence of Neptune before actually seeing it, Mueller might infer, and then find, still-hidden sources of the behavior of this sad, embarrassing wreck of a man.
My gut reaction is that these student mobbists manage to combine snowflake fragility and lynch mob irrationalism into one perfectly poisonous cocktail.
.. I came of age in the 1980s. In that time, there was an assumption that though the roots of human society were deep in tribalism, over the past 3,000 years we have developed a system of liberal democracy that gloriously transcended it, that put reason, compassion and compromise atop violence and brute force.
.. sophisticated people in those days wanted to be seen, to use Scott Alexander’s term, as mistake theorists. Mistake theorists believe that the world is complicated and most of our troubles are caused by error and incompetence, not by malice or evil intent.
.. Mistake theorists also believe that most social problems are hard and that obvious perfect solutions are scarce. Debate is essential. You bring different perspectives and expertise to the table. You reduce passion and increase learning. Basically, we’re all physicians standing over a patient with a very complex condition and we’re trying to collectively figure out what to do.
.. The idea for decades was that racial justice would come when we reduced individual bigotry — the goal was colorblind individualism. As Nils Gilman argues in The American Interest, that ideal reached its apogee with the election of Barack Obama.
.. But Obama’s election also revealed the limits of that ideal. Now the crucial barriers to racial justice are seen not just as individual, but as structural economic structures, the incarceration crisis, the breakdown of family structure.
.. The second thing that happened was that reason, apparently, ceased to matter. Today’s young people were raised within an educational ideology that taught them that individual reason and emotion were less important than perspectivism — what perspective you bring as a white man, a black woman, a transgender Mexican, or whatever.
These students were raised with the idea that individual reason is downstream from group identity. Then along came the 2016 election to validate that point of view! If reason and deliberation are central to democracy, how on earth did Donald Trump get elected?
.. If you were born after 1990, it’s not totally shocking that you would see public life as an inevitable war of tribe versus tribe. It’s not surprising that you would become, in Scott Alexander’s terminology, a conflict theorist, not a mistake theorist.
In the conflict theorist worldview, most public problems are caused not by errors or complexity, but by malice and oppression. The powerful few keep everyone else down. The solutions to injustice and suffering are simple and obvious: Defeat the powerful. Passion is more important than reason because the oppressed masses have to mobilize to storm the barricades. Debate is counterproductive because it dilutes passion and sows confusion. Discordant ideas are not there to inform; they are there to provide cover for oppression.
.. So I’d just ask them to take two courses. The first would be in revolutions — the French, Russian, Chinese and all the other ones that unleashed the passion of the mob in an effort to overthrow oppression — and the way they ALL wound up waist deep in blood.
The second would be in constitutionalism. We dump on lawyers, but the law is beautiful, living proof that we can rise above tribalism and force — proof that the edifice of civilizations is a great gift, which our ancestors gave their lives for... Our new generation was never taught how to communicate outside it’s own tribe. And failure to learn how to do that will not bode well for their future or ours... I have spent my entire adult life on college campuses, and I would say that most students do not subscribe to mobbism or tribalism. Alas, I would say apathy is far more common than protest, and that most students are unlikely to know that Christina Hoff Sommers is even speaking on campus, to have an opinion about her ideas, or to attend. I see few protests, flyers, or petitions on campus these days. Instead, I see harried students who work part-time, struggle to pay tuition, and are anxious about landing a decent job when they graduate.
Everyone observing our politics, or serving in it, still has the sense that anything could happen at the White House at any time. But neither the most hopeful nor the most fearful prognostications about the effects of Trump’s presidency on our political system have been confirmed.
.. It would be hard now to claim that the surface appearance of reckless incompetence at the White House is just a mask for deep strategic genius.
.. Both begin from the assumption that Trump ran for president in order to use the presidency to achieve a set of relatively conventional political or policy objectives, and each approach formed its expectations around some sense of what those might have been. Ten months into his presidency, it does not look as if this was the nature of Trump’s ambition.
.. Instead, his ambition seems to have been something like a desire to put himself at the center of our national consciousness and attention. This looks to be what Trump wants most, and what some of his most peculiar choices and actions are directed toward achieving. Everything else — from policy priorities to political alliances — is always subject to change in pursuit of that goal. This could also be a key to understanding the effects Trump might ultimately have on our constitutional system.
.. Trump’s ambition that most resembles the ambitions of many other politicians.
.. But they also, of course, run to do something.
.. Trump’s exertions in office have mostly been of a different sort altogether. They have generally been neither channeled through the constitutional framework nor directed against it
.. The ideal of the president as project manager was especially prominent in how Trump spoke about his ambitions at the very beginning of his campaign. In August 2015, for instance, asked by George Stephanopoulos how he would carry out his immigration proposals, Trump responded, “These people don’t know what they’re doing, George. They’re politicians. They don’t know management. I get the best people and we will do it properly and we will do it humanely.” Asked three months later to respond to criticism from his primary opponents about his proposal for a registry of Muslims, he responded, “It would be just good management.” Pressed for more details, he said, “It’s all about management, our country has no management.” We have grown so accustomed to this sort of vague, brash talk from Trump over the past two years that we barely stop to ask what it actually conveys.
.. Trump still seems to believe that he has unique management abilities to offer the country and that this job is like his last one. Perhaps ironically, given his now-infamous lack of discipline, his sense of the president’s core administrative function remains exceptionally managerial — and not, in this sense, quite political or constitutional. He instinctively treats members of Congress like incompetent subcontractors.
.. Trump’s sense of the president’s broader functions, meanwhile, has turned out to be fundamentally theatrical. In just about every setting, he is performing for an audience. Thus his obsession with ratings and audience size, his running commentary on Twitter (often calling for actions that he could instead just undertake as chief executive), and his peculiar tendency even to comment on his own speeches as he delivers them.
.. his intense desire to please the room at every moment — which has led him incessantly to shift course and change positions. He seems to want different things at different times in front of different audiences. But he actually always wants the same thing: He wants to be acclaimed a winner.
When he isn’t depicted as successful, whether it’s on morning television or in a meeting with congressional leaders, he says and does whatever seems required to change the story in his favor. He can’t resist such provocations because he is always on the stage, needing to please or save face before the crowd.
.. This has left President Trump open to shameless attempts at manipulation by members of Congress and his own administration who think they can push him in their direction on key policy questions by portraying their preferred approach as a way for him to look stronger.
.. Trump’s capacity to disrupt our exhausted political order and force other politicians into at least modestly more populist directions could well prove a boon.
.. the presence of an undisciplined, aggressive performance artist at the heart of our government — a figure whose excesses are not structurally counterbalanced by others in the system because they are not strictly speaking excesses of presidential power — could alter the public’s expectations of government and politics in ways that are decidedly unhelpful to American constitutionalism and would not be easy to reverse. Viewing politics as entertainment could be a hard habit to break.
.. Washington has experienced the Trump presidency so far as an exhausting, intense, and unproductive circus.
.. Both seem to have been incapacitated by concerns that anything meaningful they do could be undercut by an erratic presidential tweet at any moment.
.. The appointment of judges might be the one presidential function that does not require perseverance — once nominated, they are confirmed by another branch of government and then perform their work without dependence on the president
.. it is frankly hard to say just what the president actually aims to achieve except for being on everyone’s mind all the time.
.. For many decades now, American progressives have advanced an ideal of the presidency in great tension with the logic of our broader constitutional architecture. Trump now offers a far less coherent model of the presidency that is downright unaware of that broader architecture and so stands as a kind of histrionic alternative to constitutional politics. If we are to hold out any hope for a constitutional restoration, these cannot be the only options before the public.