Faking it

Herman Cain isn’t stupid. But he’s trying to pretend to have basic knowledge he lacks, like someone who isn’t a basketball fan interviewing for the job of NBA Commissioner.

Imagine that you were like me – someone who basically doesn’t get basketball, doesn’t enjoy watching it, doesn’t follow it – and suddenly decided you wanted to be the Commissioner of the NBA. You’re facing a job interview conducted by a bunch of people who live and breathe the game.

Imagine further that you share my blinding intelligence, quick wit, strong work ethic, and basic humility. When someone asks you a basic question – Was the introduction of three-point shooting a good idea, or not? – what are you going to sound like?

You’re going to sound, I suspect, as if you had a bunch of half-understood stuff you’d recently tried to memorize twirling around in your head. That is, you’re going to sound a lot like this:

The highlight is when Cain says “I do not agree with the way he [Obama] handled it for the following reason …” and then can’t remember the reason. His basic principle is disagreement with Obama; the rest is lost in the fog.

Cain, like Palin, is adequately smart. But neither of them, at base, gives a rat’s ass about lots of stuff policy wonks find compellingly interesting. There’s a substantial group of voters who identify with their cheerful ignorance. Fortunately, that group remains a minority. The elitist view that the President ought to know something still has most of the votes.

Footnote Two weeks ago, when Cain seemed a plausible nominee but not a plausible President, I didn’t see any point in criticizing him. Now that Cain seems likely to split the anti-Romney vote with Newt, I’m eager to see him go down in flames.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

28 thoughts on “Faking it”

      1. Bottom line – you guys are scared stiff that Romney will be the nominee. And you should be. And he will be.

        Scared stiff of a pump-and-dump Wall Street man who got rich firing people?
        In an anti-Wall Street environment that is going flammable?
        It’ll be a rout for Mr. Obama the centrist.

        The problem for Romney are even deeper: He is on the same stage rubbing elbows with all that crazy.
        When you sit down to eat at the Mental Hospital people will eventually assume your insane too.
        Even if you use a napkin and have a good reason for why you strapped your dog to the roof of your car.

        And the crazy is getting “tired not wired” too. CBS cut away from the debate midstream.
        We’ve gone thru Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and are now midstream in Newt’s fifteen minutes of shame.
        The debates have become a debacle. Their losing their comedic steam, but not before everyone on stage has been made a loon.

        The only thing that can save the debates is the same thing that is ruining Romney: mo betta crazy.
        So here’s my suggestion: Next debate, all candidates should bring their favorite firearm and be prepared to wax poetic on it.
        That’ll give the ratings an across the board boost. And I can’t wait to see how well Romney’s squirrel gun goes over with Red State America…

        1. Next debate, all candidates should bring their favorite firearm and be prepared to wax poetic on it.

          No, all the candidates should bring their favorite firearm and be prepared to use it. That would be worth watching!

  1. Mark, when you do get that NBA interview, remember it’s a “three”-point shot. Or a trey. Just not a tree.

  2. Red, liberal elitists like you and Kleiman just don’t understand why real Americans go for a guy like Cain.

  3. Palin is adequately smart? I don’t think so. Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Huntsman, Paul I’ll grant you. (And Romney seems seriously smart.) But Palin and Perry both strike me as kind of dim, although Palin, admittedly, has world-class sharp elbows, and a marvelous intuition for tapping ressentiment.

  4. I haven’t been following the campaign sufficiently to answer this question: It’s clear that Cain doesn’t give “a rat’s ass about lots of stuff policy wonks find compellingly interesting.

    Does that mean that he has a bunch of gaps in his policy knowledge? (I’m a pretty knowledgable policy wonk: an expert in one area, pretty knowledgable about a few related topics, and am semi-conversant about lots of other topics, but I’d still look like an idiot in a Presidential debate.)

    Or is he just not interested in the substance of ANY public policy issues?

    1. Except for his magical tax policy, about which it is impossible to tell whether Cain is knowledgeable or obfuscating or both, he has demonstrated no substantive knowledge about any policy, domestic or foreign. He doesn’t know that as a Republican, particularly visiting in Wisconsin, he should be categorically against public sector collective bargaining; in foreign policy he thinks China is on the way to nuclear weapons. He obviously hasn’t been paying attention for 50 years.

      1. Yes but he’s a quick study and should be able to get up to speed after his inauguration. Why waste time boning up on a job he might not get?

  5. Disagreement with Obama on all issues is, as Mark points out, mandatory for Republican candidates. Cain remembers “Republicans good, Obama bad.” He lives on Animal Farm, and remembers “Four legs good, two legs bad” but cannot go any farther without help from others. However, this provides just one example of a general pattern.

    E.J. Dionne has a piece http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/conservatives-mindless-opposition/2011/11/11/gIQAa33BJN_story.html about the basic conservative meme for the past 30 years: “Private sector good, public sector bad.” The focus is on Rick Perry, but the problem of mindless opposition to “government” is the same.

    Jeffrey Sachs has a new book out, and published a short piece in the NY Times the other day which seems to me to penetrate very deeply into the roots of our ailments of the past generation. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/13/opinion/sunday/the-new-progressive-movement.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all
    Reagan’s 1981 misdiagnosis of government as the problem when American prosperity was really being threatened by the rise of global competition in the information age—this was indeed fateful. I think that Sachs is a must read.

    Basically, what we see in the Cain clip is just one illustration of the larger pattern which should be taken much more seriously than our public square is taking it. An entire political party is living on Animal Farm, and in a two-party system, that is a fatal disorder.

  6. That is a great comparison. Nice column.

    Mark if asked about the trey, simply respond: “As Chou Enlai didn’t actually say about the French Revolution, it’s too soon to tell. That’s pretty much my view here, too.” That connotes a wise sense of the conflicting arguments which you’ve never encountered in any form.

    1. Thanks, Harold. I forgot to say that Cain and others will be able to get help on details from Napoleon (or the Koch brothers) whenever they need it, so there is really nothing to worry about.

  7. I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I see reports of Cain saying stupid things. On the other hand, I know everybody says stupid things.

    If the media like you, they don’t report the stupid things. (57 states, first Pacific President, Hawaii in Asia…) If they’re out to get you, they harp on them endlessly. (Quayle was a good example of this.)

    That, of course, doesn’t mean that somebody the media is reporting stupid statements by isn’t an idiot anyway. But it does mean that all the media reporting stupid statements by somebody tells you, is that the media don’t like him. They may be, purely by coincidence, an idiot. They may just be getting the jet-lagged statements broadcast, and the gems edited out.

    Figuring out which it is requires a lot of research, bypassing the MSM. I’ll bother to do that when the primaries approach my home state. But in the mean while I do reason that Cain couldn’t have been the success he was in business, if he were really some kind of idiot. Might be ignorant, though. OTOH, ignorance can be remedied, stupid goes to the bone.

    In short, this sort of reporting conveys no information about the candidate beyond that they’re not perfect, which, by Shannon’s theorem, is no information at all. (Since none of them are.) All it tells me is that the MSM don’t like Cain. But I could have figured out that in advance, so, again, it tells me nothing.

    In the meanwhile, Hawaii’s in Asia? What a rube!

    1. Brett:
      I think it helps to distinguish between slips of the tongue (57 states, Hawaii in Asia, etc) and genuine ignorance. For example, when Cain had his “debate” with Newt Gingrich, he was asked about Medicare and whether to favor a defined benefits plan or premium support. He slowly said, “defined benefits plan,” drew a blank, and said “You go first, Newt.” Similarly, when asked about Libya, he did not have a slip of the tongue; he really had not been following the developments in that country and debates over the choices that Obama had made regarding NATO involvement, the support of the Arab League, the votes in the UN Security Council, etc. The differences between defined benefits plans and premium support are substantial, affecting millions of people, and the choices we make regarding them have long-term consequences.

      That is why I think that the only think Cain “knows” is “GOP good, Obama bad.” Barack Obama may have some Freudian or non-Freudian slips of the tongue, but he is not living on Animal Farm. He is living in a complex world with a continuously shifting landscape in which calculated risks must be taken. His model of the world is much richer than “Democrats good, Republicans bad.” This sometimes frustrates his base, but it does show that he does not need Napoleon to help him think.

      A certain radio talk show host (hint: a big fat idiot with a pea-sized heart) came to Cain’s defense over the 11 second pause in his response to the question about Libya; he thought that the liberals were just picking on him because TV quiz shows have a 10 second limit and that was the game they were playing. No doubt the dittoheads believe him, but people living in the real world must reject his “analysis.”

    2. Ah yes, you need an operational test to distinguish between ignorance and slips of the tongue. Here is the test: repeat the phrase in a questioning manner: “57 states?” “Hawaii in Asia?” and wait one half second for the response. If the response is to whack the forehead and say, “D’oh!!” that is a slip of the tongue. If repeating “defined benefits plan” or “Libya” continues to elicit a blank look, that is ignorance.

      1. As I say, ignorance can be remedied, stupid (as yet) can’t. Given his business record, I’m pretty sure Cain isn’t stupid. Ignorant of some things, THAT I’d believe.

        And I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t be reading about this if the media liked Cain, which has to be taken into account. Really, all the MSM coverage tells you is who they like, it’s pretty bad that way.

        1. Ignorance is one thing, stupidity is another, and contempt for knowledge is still another. Cain is full of the latter, which is much more difficult to remedy than ignorance. An ignorant man can learn, but a man who is proud of being ignorant cannot. Cain sees no reason to know anything about Uzbekibekistanstanstan, and has pledged not to sign any bill longer than three pages in length. He sees no reason for any piece of legislation to get all wordy and complicated. Simplistic reasoning, like contempt for knowledge, is not so easily remedied. It is these two qualities of character that lead to my big beef with most of today’s political right, whether it is found in Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, or other Tea Party favorites who seek high office. “Us good, them bad” works OK for sheep, but shepherds need much more sophistication—they need a deep knowledge of season and terrain, of predator habitat and distribution, of foliage and undergrowth. Otherwise they will lead their flocks into famine and predation.

          These habits of character cannot be remedied by having advisors, either, as Cain seems to think. Machiavelli said somewhere in The Prince that an unwise prince cannot benefit from counselors, since he will be unable to tell the difference between good counsel and bad. He will simply be manipulated by the agendas of his advisors.

          There is a qualitative difference between Herman Cain and Barack Obama; I do not know how to make that any clearer. This thread seems to be petering out, but because we are discussing matters of process and not just this or that content, I suspect that other threads will resume this general theme.

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