Thursday, August 18, 2011

Is Obama willing to question his own assumptions?

Mickey Kaus poses the question (all links and emphasis are from Kaus's blog post, not added here):

The president is in a situation in which virtually none of his considered beliefs – in Keynesian economics, in the power of redistributive populism, in coalition politics, in his own oratorical skill – is being affirmed by the real world. It’s like the period Thomas Kuhn talks about in his famous Structure of Scientific Revolutions, when scientists are working along within the old “paradigm” but the data start coming back funny. Most scientists just ignore the discordant data and keep plodding along. A few start to question the “paradigm.” You’d want a President in tough times to be one of the latter, no? You’d expect someone like Obama to undertake some reevaluation. As Bret Stephens noted recently, genuinely smart people know what they don’t know – or in this case they know what they used to know but now aren’t so sure about anymore. 
Take Keynesianism. I’ve always assumed that Keynesian remedies – e.g. government deficit spending–worked. Certainly deficit spending seemed to work for Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. And Paul Krugman may well be right that the only problem with Obama’s stimulus is that it wasn’t big enough. But you can’t say that anymore with certainty, can you? The data – big stimulus, weak recovery – hardly reinforce the paradigm with anything like inarguable clarity. And there are some respected economists – Kenneth Rogoff, and Greg Mankiw, to name two – who question whether the classic Keynesian paradigm still holds in the current slump. Has Obama read them? Consulted them? No need to make a show of it like Carter. He can do it quietly. But has he? 
Or is it possible that Obama is … what did they call his predecessorintellectually incurious?
So many of our seemingly rational beliefs are a matter of faith. The word is often used synonymously with "religion," but it also describes people's beliefs on economics, government, society — almost everything. If you know someone has a belief today, it's extremely likely they'll have the same belief next week, no matter what happens tomorrow. I haven't gotten any sense that President Obama is an exception to this general rule.

He isn't entirely to blame for this; our whole political culture is also to blame. We insist on politicians having "convictions," which means never changing their minds — the opposite of "flip-flopping," which is always bad. Imagine if Obama came out and said:
Look, the stimulus was an experiment in Keynesianism. The point of an experiment is that you don't know in advance exactly what the results are going to be. We can now see that results of this experiment were pretty poor. So it's time to try a different approach.
But he could never say this, because it would reveal weakness, which is supposed to be worse than being consistently wrong.