Only the best for us

Paul Krugman has no respect for citizens’ time, no understanding of excellence, and no respect for efficiency. I’m not sure he’s a real economist, even though he plays one in AER, Princeton senior common rooms, etc. In today’s column, he suggests that amateurs and unqualified people do their own thinking about candidates’ records and actions. His lead is to present FDR as a rich guy who said he wanted to help the poor, contrasting the confusion this generates with the clarity with which Edwards (for example) can be nailed as a hypocrite for the same ideas.

What Krugman doesn’t understand is that identity politics (for example) is much simpler and quicker than the old-fashioned kind, and a lot easier to get right. Rich people vote for rich candidates, poor ones for poor, Jews vote for Israel supporters, and like that. Does the earned income tax credit reduce employment? I’ll probably get this wrong, but I sure know who’s white and who’s a lot richer than I am. I used to wonder when students would say things like “Well, being a conservative, I favor [this or that policy].” It seemed to me this completely reversed the correct direction of the arrow of cause, but now I understand how much hard work it saves and how much error is avoided.

And that’s not all. Once upon a time, people made their own music in their living rooms with friends, or went out in the park to throw a ball around. The music they made required a lot of practicing and was still never really good; no-one I knew could play any ball game as well as even a middle-rank NFL player. Now, thank God, we have a few certified specialist experts making wonderful music for our iPods, and playing superb ball for us all to watch, and we can do it alone, which saves no end of taking care of other people’s feelings. How could anyone want the art, or sports, of a great nation to be mostly made ineptly, by anyone and everyone, taking a lot of time that could be spent on the job? Surely it’s better for all of us to leave this kind of thing to the few stars who are better than we could ever be. Kids used to have to make their own stuff with blocks, and pretend a rag doll was crying, laughing, talking, etc., but now every kid can have brightly colored, really complicated electronic toys that each do one amazing thing as soon as the batteries are put in, toys that are made by real professional designers and engineers instead of clueless six-year-olds. How are kids supposed to know when a doll should cry? With today’s toys, they don’t have to.

In politics, opinions and judgments made by amateurs, looking with untrained eyes at actual phenomena, are as bad as the home-made piano-playing we used to suffer. Why would we do this when we have famous and (usually) attractive people to do that for us? A few paid professional conservatives and liberals can give their tribes really good opinions, cunningly packaged in quick witty hits with super production values. It’s just truculent and wilful to want to read a book, or watch a debate, when real pros have already done that so much better than we can, and are happy to give us really excellent opinions and judgments. Why would anyone want to hear views about the surge, or Social Security, from some friend who’s not at all famous, badly lit, unrehearsed, with home-made makeup – or none! – and with some random office or restaurant background and dirty dishes on the table?

Paul doesn’t get it; the last century of progress is wasted on him. But that’s no reason he should be allowed to confuse the rest of us.

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.