Magical thinking is a moral failing, not a charming quirk

I moved to California twenty-five years ago, and there is much to like and admire here. However, I have never made my peace with a particular feckless quality of much about our politics, a willingness to behave in a way that would be appropriate if the world were they way you wish it were, but profoundly dysfunctional in the world as it is. We crippled and stupefied our legislature with term limits to show them how pissed-off we were. After the historic Oakland Hills fire that killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3000 homes, the Berkeley city fathers realized that our adjacent hill area hadn’t burned since 1926 and had built up a significant fuel load. It was proposed to expand the firehouse in that neighborhood…and the neighbors whose houses were most at risk were up in arms protesting that it would be noisy.

Berkeley had, for years and years, a million square feet of vacant industrial buildings, because romantic social justice advocates successfully zoned the area for nothing but manufacturing and blue-collar jobs, even though no-one wanted to manufacture anything in Berkeley and never would. Not hi-tech, not artists’ live-work studios, not offices, not low-cost housing for our teachers who can’t afford Berkeley rents: manufacturing. All those blue-collar jobs existed, for decades, entirely in the deliberately ignorant, sentimental imagination of a bunch of people more interested in telling themselves how moral and decent they were than actually improving anything in the real world.

At the DNC convention tonight, the California Bernie delegates kept up a constant stream of booing and whining and dissing Hillary, telling interviewers they would vote Green, or not vote in November, even though Bernie, whom they said they trust implicitly and completely, had just told them to get the hell on the reality train and start working for Hillary and a Democratic congress, and against the real Republican nightmare slouching towards the real White House to be born.  A bunch of Nader voters in the same mold gave us eight years of W, two wars, an economic meltdown, and a Supreme Court that gave our politics to plutocrats. People die from magical thinking when their parents deny them vaccinations, not to mention in stupid wars that those Nader voters could have prevented. I hope their purity of thought comforts them in the face of the misery they imposed on everyone else. Trump is called, with good reason, a narcissist; what about people like the dead-end Bernie solipsists?

I worry that some of those self-absorbed luftmenschen in the California delegation went to Cal, and worse, took  my class. (Maybe they went to UCLA and Kleiman has to answer for them). If so, I will rend my garments and try to figure out how I failed so badly, and apologize to everyone who has to put up with this infantile behavior.  But I hope they went to Stanford or USC, or maybe Santa Cruz. And I hope in any case that they get their exquisite personal moral excellence engraved on stone tablets…and drop them on their toes.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

54 thoughts on “Magical thinking is a moral failing, not a charming quirk”

  1. Not USC. My alma mater is also prone to magical thinking, but it's of the conservative kind (Arthur Laffer was on the econ faculty while I was there, to give you some idea). Or the Disney kind, since USC is that empire's feeder school.

    For the kind of purity-questing, compromise-averse rigidity we saw this evening, there's nothing quite like Berkeley. It's sui generis.

    1. Now, when I was a lad in Berkeley, my junior high school took me on a field trip to the Palmolive soap plant, and we saw thriving industry, blue collar jobs, etc.
      On the other hand, it WAS 1963…
      We're not quite as submerged in virtue signalling here in Arlington VA as is Berkeley, but we have our moments. However, I don't think Berkeley can claim to be further estranged from reality than is Madison.

  2. The Democratic primaries were recently revealed, by that email leak, to have been comprehensively rigged in Hillary's favor. (Revealing, I think, that you didn't regard the reason the Bernie supporters were mad worth mentioning.) Then their hero gets bought off. (Yeah, they were gullible to idolize him.)

    And now they're supposed to fall in line.

    It's a short term vs long term thing. Short term, if they fall in line, they get a better outcome. At least, viewed from a leftist perspective.

    Long term? They perpetuate the system that stole the nomination from Bernie.

    Taking a longer perspective than a 74 year old politician who likely won't see Hillary's second term anyway isn't magical thinking.

    1. The primaries were somehow "comprehensively rigged" by a bunch of low level staffers complaining that they weren't allowed to implement whatever dumb schemes they'd come up with. I'm pretty sure that some of them were just blowing off steam rather than being serious, and the fact that the leakers were selective about which ones they released doesn't dispel that suspicion.

      That's some mighty comprehensive rigging, there.

      1. Didn't realize that Debbie Wasserman Schultz was a low level staffer. Well, you learn new things every day.

          1. Oh, good God, do I have to tie your shoelaces for you this morning, too? Why did you suppose she had to resign?

          2. She resigned because no one especially liked her. (There were reports last fall that Clinton's campaign was trying to find a way to get rid of her.) When you don't have any allies, and something embarrassing happens on your watch, you often get tossed out even if you weren't responsible for the embarrassing thing.

            I'm kind of surprised you are unaware of that.

    2. Given that Sanders won the caucus states, which are the contests in which the Democratic National Committee has the most opportunity and power to exercise leverage (since those contests are run by the state Democratic parties); and lost the vast majority of primary states, which are elections run by the states, that was a pretty piss-poor job of rigging, huh?

  3. Hey, magical thinking at Stanford? Gee, I hope not. Look at the great example of how smart even our football players are: Corey Booker!

    And Brett, hope people who support Bernie can listen to his experienced voice: you change from within, as is happening, not by risking the end of democracy as we know it by facilitating a Trump presidency. Can you image the decades of horrible decisions we will be left with with a Trump appointed Supreme Court? Let's indeed think long perspective.

    1. All of them?

      How does the percentage of USSR admirers among Bernie supporters compare with the percentage of Klansmen among Trump supporters?

      1. It's hugely higher. The only reason there are any Klansmen among Trump supporters is that the Democrats plant them. Bernie's communist supporters are the real deal, as you'd expect from a guy who honeymooned in the USSR.

        1. The only reason there are any Klansmen among Trump supporters is that the Democrats plant them.

          Well, that almost CERTAINLY requires evidence of some sort. Which I'm sure you have at hand.

          1. Oh, come on, that's been a standard Democratic tactic since at least the 90's, when I attended events where they shipped in fake Klansmen. It got to the point where organizers would bring "This is a fake protester" signs, and encourage us to crowd the fakes so that the warning would be captured in any pictures the press took. (Not that it worked, the photos would usually be cropped.)

            So I've seen it with my own eyes.

            Look, even Snopes isn't buying it.

            It's just cheap theater. If Bernie didn't have so many connections to communism, I'd assume the communist flags at the Democratic convention were just Republicans returning the favor, but he does have those connections.

          2. So you have no evidence. Noted and moving on.

            (We'll ignore the explicit Trump support, both online and off, from David Duke, St0rmfr0nt and other white nationalist organizations, I guess. They're functionally equivalent to the Klan and extremely embarrassing to whatever point it is you imagine you're trying to make, so best if neither of us bring them up. OR MAYBE THEY'RE DEMOCRATIC PLANTS TOO?)

          3. I'm quite aware that you're under no obligation to take seriously my eyewitness experience. I've no problem with that.

            But I'm not obligated to ignore the evidence of my own eyes. The only people I've ever seen at Republican events in Klan robes were Democratic plants. Blatantly so. Democrats have been sending fake racist 'supporters' to Republican events for decades now. It's such a standard tactic it's become a cliché.

          4. Klansmen do not wear robes all the time. Some never do.

            To argue seriously that people who are probably protesting are the only Klan members, or racists in general, supporting Trump, is beyond deranged.

          5. Although I love that you think that Snopes link proves YOUR point that, since it explicitly states "The identities of the hooded figures, their political affiliations, and the motivation behind their wardrobe choices are still unknown." Occam's Razor can cut either way here.

            I also love that you think one has to actually be wearing the robes to be a Klansman. Or that you want other to think that. Unfortunately for you, other people are rarely as dumb as you seem to think they are.

          6. You don't need to be wearing robes to be a Klansman, and you don't need to be carrying a communist flag to be a commie. It works both ways.

            But if you're wearing robes at a Republican rally, you are almost certainly NOT a Klansman, but instead a plant. The Klan don't wear robes anymore. Mostly, they hardly exist anymore; The ADL, no friend to Trump, estimates there are only 5000 of them nation-wide.

          7. And of course they can't just be a couple of schmucks who decided to act like jerks. They just must be PLANTS from the DEMON-CRATIC PARTY, because that's how deep the conspiracy goes, right? Nobody does anything of their own volition, but only when ordered by their DNC overlords.

            If I hadn't known for years that you were crazy, I'd think you still had chemo brain. But no, it's just Bellmore-brain.

          8. So wait. Klansmen don't wear robes, but the few robe-wearers you've seen at Trump rallies are all the Klansmen supporting Trump?

            Yup. Bellmore brain.

          9. No, I said the few robe-wearers I've seen at Republican rallies were *fake* Klansmen *pretending* to support Trump, a PR stunt Democrats have been pulling off for decades.

  4. I wouldn't worry too much. People are just upset and they will calm down by November (most of them). Also, California is pretty much a lock for Hill so if a few of them write in Bernie, so what? If there is even a write-in space? I don't know, I've never done it yet.

    I agree with you about Greens though – !!! I can't believe they have the nerve to still exist after Nader. Bleeping clowns.

    It really depends what state you live in.

    Here is an empirical question. Some of my friends want to go to Nevada or Arizona to do GOTV and voter defense. I always wonder to myself, is it offensive if someone from California shows up and tries to get you to vote? Isn't it like… moving to Portland? Are they really happy to see us? And how come they don't have their own lawyers to defend voters? Or am I just being a lazy git? Well, plus my Spanglish isn't that good.

        1. When you're designing a one party state, you can't keep write-in ballots. It might permit the occasional Republican to vote for a Republican, and top-two was intended to foreclose that option.

          1. You mean that the most important thing is that a RWNJ should get to engage in a futile vote, even at the cost of effectively disenfranchising a large number of their more moderate fellows.

            The top two rule happened because very often the preferences of the bulk of the electorate are split between two members of the same party. Because low turnout is in primaries tends to favor the more committed ideologues the more left-wing candidate would make it to the general as the D nominee. (As Texans only get to vote for a RWNJ these days.) With a winner-by-party system, that nominee will almost certainly go on to win the general (in CA, anyway), even though the electorate as a whole would have preferred someone more moderate. This way they get that option. Your way you'd be even unhappier with the end result. But judging from the tone of your posts here, being unhappy about things is a primary source of satisfaction for you.

          2. Sorry, I was confused by what you were claiming. The only limitation on write-in votes in CA is that the person you're writing in has to file a declaration with the secretary of state stating that they wish to be a write-in candidate. You can write names in to your heart's content, but they don't get counted. So all this prevents you from doing is having your vote for Mickey Mouse recorded. I get the feeling that would be meaningful to you, but, as the song they played at the Republican Convention said, "You Can’t Always Get What You Want."

          3. Couldn't we have had ranked voting and gotten the same thing? I'm going to have to google this to see who pushed it and why. One problem with having a gazillion props all the time is, I forget which ones I voted for! So later when I decide if I like something or not, I can't even remember if I am to blame!

          4. There is, IIRC, a federal law prohibiting the use of things like proportional representation and ranked voting in federal elections. But the primaries aren't, technically, federal elections. They're just a way of deciding who ends up on the ballot. So it doesn't apply to them.

            Foster, you can vote write in in the top two primary in California. There is no longer any option for write-in in the general election. They wanted to make sure there wasn't any way at all for somebody to vote for anybody but the top two primary winners. Really, the purpose WAS to deny the voters any choice beyond what they were provided.

          5. I can see how proportional representation might be a heavy mental lift for people – since my reaction is, is that, what? parliamentarian? I don't even know what it is. Whereas, ranked is just a nifty way of not having to pay for another election, imo. It just seems to make sense to me.

            California has state level term limits, so we get all kinds of weird scramblings around. If anyone out there thinks they are a good idea and wants to try them, don't bother! It achieves nothing. I think there was one chain of perhaps 3 special elections we had to pay for because of them. Someone's term is about to end, so they run for something else, then someone has to fill their seat… it *does* eventually end, only by then you the voter are totally disgusted at the wasted money.

    1. I don't know if "is it offensive?" is an empirical question, but I have some answers based on non-systematic observation and hearsay and stuff I've read (which probably also counts as hearsay), if that will do. (1) Generally speaking, for GOTV or election observer work, the voters (or prospective voters) have no way to know whether you're from in-state or across the line. (2) I'm not aware of any case where election observers were identified by party. (3) If they had enough of their own lawyers (or election observers), they wouldn't need out-of-state help. (4) The people who *do* know that you're from out of state are the local organizers, and in every case I've heard of (this includes both parties), they are extremely and especially appreciative of those who come from out of state to help. (5) Not all tasks involve shoe leather or require interaction: GOTV and phone-banking people have to send in information about who they've contacted to people who do data entry so the campaign can keep track of who has been contacted and what the result is. If you want to do data entry you are usually asked to provide your own laptop.
      I hope this is helpful.

      1. Thanks, lcoleman6! Non systematic observation works for me. I don't think we have noticeable accents. Maybe some phonebanking. Ick. But, maybe.

        1. I have a good friend who was in charge of a phonebank for Obama in 2012, and she's doing it for Hillary this year, and I gather Hillary's people are using the Obama playbook this time around. So, for what it's worth, here's what I understand. (Hearsay again, for the most part.) The early stages are about targeting voters for contact and voter registration. Voter registration is easy and pleasant, and you can work with a party or with a non-partisan group. In my case (obviously not hearsay), we were sent to some apartment buildings and set up tables with registration forms in the lobbies (everything pre-arranged with management) and just asked people as they walked by if they were registered to vote. I hate talking to strangers, but even I found it pretty easy.

          The difference between the Bush and Kerry campaigns of 2004 and Obama's 2008 campaign is that in 2004 volunteers were sent out to knock on doors in a given neighborhood, presumably skipping houses with yard signs for the opposing candidate, whereas in 2008 the Obama people had identified specific voters for contact: registered Democrats who were either first-time voters or who were not consistent voters. I don't know if they had previously identified registered Independents who had indicated they were leaning towards Obama, but it wouldn't surprise me. The McCain camp was far less organized–more along the lines of the 2004 patterns. Also,I know a lot of people who tried to volunteer with McCain but never got callbacks.

          So if you volunteer with Hillary, and if she's following Obama's playbook, which seems likely, you'd be sent to specific areas to talk to specific people who had already been identified and you'd ask questions like, "do you have a plan to vote? do you need a ride? do you need help voting?" That sort of thing.

          I gather phonebanking goes through stages, with the first stage being calling people to find out if they favor your candidate or not so that those who are strongly against can be eliminated from the list of contacts. (That, I imagine, would be potentially the most unpleasant, although my friend reports that she has for the most part interesting and civil conversations.) Another stage is contacting people who have already indicated they favor the candidate and would be interested in volunteering, and in that case you present them with volunteer opportunities.

          By the time they got to election day itself, the Obama camp had very specific people in each neighborhood to contact to make sure they voted. (They kept good records and eliminated people from the list who had voted early.) McCain's camp didn't keep very good records and the Romney camp ran into trouble with their software. Again, I'm guessing Hillary, if she's wise, is using Obama's playbook. It appears Trump isn't interested in a ground game, so I don't know what the GOTV is going to look like on the Republican side. Probably, neither does Trump.

          Forgive the length. It's a bit scattershot, I'm afraid, but I hope it's helpful.

          1. Thank you, yes it's helpful. The issue is getting motivated enough to do it. Probably it will take some really scary polls to get me off my duff.

  5. Oh also, … Brett, I don't do Twitter for important things. It seems to me, Bernie lost because of unfair press non-coverage, of a degree that must have been deliberate on some level… and voters of color not giving him a chance. The DNC afaik didn't cause these things.

    1. No, actually, per the leaked emails, the DNC did cause the former, contributed to it at least.

      I guess my point here is, don't pretend Bernie's supporters have no good reason for being mad, or that their reason is just losing. The DNC really did rig the system for Hillary. That's what is prompting the anger, not "magical thinking".

    2. Saying, ". . . voters of color not giving him a chance," is unbelievably condescending. Maybe you should start from an assumption that African-Americans and Latinos have rational reasons for the things they do and that, just maybe, they've thought about what they're doing and actually decided that they preferred Hillary Clinton.

      You'll offend a lot fewer people that way.

      1. Quite the opposite. Since the vast majority of white voters have no actual idea why they believe what they believe, it would be racist to expect anything different from "people of color."

        1. If you want to believe that saying, ". . . voters of color not giving him a chance," is anything other than deeply offensive, that might be an example of you not getting issues of race. There are longstanding reasons why black Americans have given support to the Clintons, despite plenty of disagreements. You could trouble yourself to go out and read about those reasons, or you could continue to posture.

          1. What are the policy failings of Sanders vis a vis the black voter, which would make him so unacceptable as a candidate compared to Clinton? Some personal failing? Some historical reason?

            No?

            Then why is this a meme, if it was not – at least in part – manufactured and abetted by the DNC?

          2. Again, I would tell you that, if you want to know why African-Americans didn't warm to Bernie Sanders, go read what they had to say about it, rather than asking me. I don't want to be the white guy trying to explain black people to you. Their explanations aren't hard to find.

  6. I'm a person of color too, but if other people want to get offended *for* me on that basis, or at me, or both… knock yourself out.

  7. So, Michael, can you honestly say you would feel the same way if Hillary, not Sanders, was unethically maneuvered out of the nomination by the DNC? Which then lied about it. A DNC which suddenly demands the help of the very voters it estranged? Because their "more electable" candidate has never polled as well against Trump as Sanders?

    A DNC who no longer cares about labor, or feels very passionate about Social Security, or healthcare for all? A DNC which proudly supports corporations over people?

    And this would still seem to you to be a smaller problem than a hideous Republican candidate who will never get anything passed anyway? And yet folks like me, according to you, have a problem with morality? You've got some chutzpah.

    1. You and Mr. Neal have very different opinions about what the emails reveal; I was relying on his interpretation (i.e., there was no actual rigging) because actually reading all of the emails would be a long and cringey affair (and so, ripe for outsourcing). Is he wrong? I am actually asking.

      Oh and also, your point about the Donald being a hideous candidate who "can't get anything passed anyway" sounds interesting at first, until we recall that the President actually has rather broad powers when it comes to foreign affairs… the orange one doesn't limit his comments to domestic policy that he wouldn't actually have the power to control.

    2. Clinton won by more than 3 million votes. I have yet to hear a convincing model of how Sanders overcomes that deficit with a truly impartial DNC. Particularly since the media isn't just a puppet for the DNC.

      There were a whole parade of union leaders on stage yesterday endorsing Clinton. She is unequivocally the best presidential candidate we've had on health care issues in many decades, maybe ever. The idea that the Democrats don't care about Social Security has no obvious basis in the facts. Trump, meanwhile, is claiming all sorts of authorities without acts of Congress and has already said very dangerous things about foreign policy that don't require Congressional action for him to act upon them.

      If you want to jam your fingers in your ears and pretend you can't hear any of that, fine, but let's not play this no-meaningful-differences-between-candidates game again. It's only been 16 years since the last time that turned out to be a disaster for the country.

    3. Provide some evidence that the DNC was actually rigging the election. One of the things that you're going to have to overcome is that the DNC doesn't have any control over primaries; those are dictated by state governments. The DNC does have some control over caucuses, so you would think that, if they were rigging anything, it would have been those. Except, Sanders was disproportionately successful in caucuses.

      So, what else did the DNC actually do that constituted rigging anything?

  8. Fellow Berkeleyite here, equally fed up with the local stupidity that passes for "progressive" politics. However, I don't think the magical thinking is unique to California. It's just enabled here by the direct democracy of propositions, which has given us prop. 13, prop. 65, the 2/3 requirement for new taxes, and so on. Magical thinking about politics is widespread — look at all the lefties pissed at Obama for not closing down Guantanamo, as though he could do it by saying "abracadabra". And it was Florida and New Hampshire purists who, with their Nader votes, gave us GWB.

    Berkeley does seem to be a hotbed for this kind of stuff though – witness the theory of the (mainly student-elected) city council members (as revealed by their opposition to new downtown apartment construction) that developers can be forced to build 100% low income housing if only we insist firmly enough. Or the demand that the downtown post office remain as a minimally used shell in order to show the USPS that we support good union jobs. Incidentally, is that West Berkeley zoning limitation gone? Last I checked that plan for the return of light manufacturing – "any day now!" – from the early '90s was still in force.

  9. I went to a planning meeting in Berkeley a couple of weeks ago and one of the commissioners appointed by council members thinks that many Berkeley residents are planning to pay $400K to build accessory dwelling units in our backyards to house the homeless.

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