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Washington Should Listen To “The Wolf”

The arrogance of power is directly proportional to bad judgment. The more blunders, the more arrogance. That makes me think of Rahm Emanuel, a master at marginalizing others in games of petty politics at the very times the judgments of others are most necessary to success.

I can sometimes smile at America’s political elite. It’s a broad, bipartisan smile, aimed at the elite of both parties, the corporate press, the consultant celebrities. By any measure, the world has grown more dangerous on their watch, from increasing international belligerence and the threat of environmental catastrophe. Here at home, the scandalous gap between rich and poor is equally threatening (and immoral). On all fronts, leadership has botched the job.

And still the pundits, politicians, bureaucrats, and party hacks get their self-esteem from being part of the crew that’s wrecked the world. I know that some say they haven’t botched it at all, that they’ve succeeded in their real job of running off with the money and condemning the planet to ruin and the rest of us to poverty. That’s certainly true of some, like Dick Cheney. But it’s not true of many. They are just inept. They can’t see past the ends of their noses, and they’ve fallen in love with their own smell.

As we argued over health care this past week, the White House and the Senate circled the wagons. I know what it’s like on the inside of circled wagons. I’ve been there. The first order of business is to identify the unworthy outsiders, then get all self-congratulatory about how smart you are, how hard you work, and how little those unworthy outsiders know.

There’s a great parody of self-congratulating fools in the movie, Pulp Fiction. Vincent and Jules have created a bloody mess. Mr. Wolfe (Harvey Keitel) is called in to clean it up. He’s about got that done when the self-congratulating starts. “Well, let’s not start sucking each others dicks quite yet,” Keitel says. That’s a line that should have been uttered in all the backslapping, elite meetings that got the world into its messes.

Status celebration is exactly what leads a Chris Matthews to criticize the netroots or a Rahm Emanuel to dismiss liberals. The insiders are just heavy-petting one another because they’ve made it through the red velvet ropes and into the exclusive club. The problem is, when they engage in heavy petting, it’s the rest of the world that gets the political, cultural, economic and environmental equivalents of STDs.

It is, of course, fundamentally anti-democratic. It’s tragic, really, because if we are to survive these desperate times, we are going to have to overcome the elite experts and listen to the wisdom of the many. We’re going to have to achieve something closer to a true popular democracy.

A few years ago, psychologist Philip Tetlock completed a multi-year study of expert advice measured against actual outcomes, published in his book, Expert Political Judgment. Experts, Tetlock found, were no better than “dart-throwing chimps” at predicting outcomes or consequences. Experts:

…claim to know more about the future than they actually know, balk at changing their minds in the face of unexpected evidence, and dogmatically defend their deterministic explanations of the past.

Sound like anyone you know?

Tetlock summed it up nicely in an interview.

We found that our experts’ predictions barely beat random guesses – the statistical equivalent of a dart-throwing chimp – and proved no better than predictions of reasonably well-read nonexperts. Ironically, the more famous the expert, the less accurate his or her predictions tended to be.

I’m not sure I go as far as James Suroweicki does in The Wisdom of Crowds. We do need expert knowledge. But those experts have to listen to non-experts, to the broad public that knows a little something about consequences. Political elites are especially dangerous – precisely because of their fame and celebrity, which makes them more prone to error, according to Tetlock.

In the health care debate, efforts to improve the bill have been misrepresented and ridiculed as coming from unrealistic progressives with no real skin in the game. What? Doesn’t being a citizen mean exactly that one has skin in the game? And, uh, this is health care. My actual skin is in the game.

I, for one, simply wanted Democrats to understand that there might just be a voter backlash to a mandate without a public option and enforceable regulation.  Behind the wagons, though, the high and the mighty have succeeded in reducing their goal to simply silencing those who seek to make it better.

When self-selecting elites create outsiders, victory too often means simply beating the outsiders. Policy differences and human consequences become little game pieces in a power contest dangerously abstracted from the world.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith