Monday, July 21, 2008

How do you know you don't like hemlock???

I've been on the road for what feels like forever, which helps explain my paucity of posts. Glad to see that Donpedro has kept the fire burning hear at E4O.

This one isn't about economics per se, but instead about common sense.*

John McCain has been telling anyone who'll quote him that it's a colossal sin that Barack Obama formulated his Iraq policy before he even went to Iraq! I'd thought that this criticism was so self-evidently ridiculous that McCain would be made fun of and then stop making it. But it seems I was wrong. Since McCain's criticism has been reported widely and mocked little (if at all), perhaps its silliness bears some explaining. But first, let's consider some analogical examples:

  • I have always wished to own a Ferrari. I like flashy high-performance cars, and everyone knows that Ferraris are among the best. But few people, including I, have ever actually driven a Ferrari. Apparently, everyone would be roundly rebuked by John McCain for formulating a Ferrari-liking policy before ever driving one!
  • I live in the Sonoran desert of Arizona, where Black Widows and the Arizona Brown spider are relatively common. Since moving to Arizona, I have tried hard to avoid being bitten by one of these spiders, since their bites are known to be painful and potentially disfiguring or fatal. But since few people have ever been bitten by these species of spider, John McCain would mock me for wanting to avoid Black Widow/Arizona Brown bites before even being bitten!
  • I believe that John McCain's gas-tax holiday proposal is really silly, because I believe that it would make very little difference to the gas prices consumers pay while also depleting the Federal Highway Trust Fund. But now I realize that John McCain would mock me for thinking this before I've ever visited the Federal Highway Trust Fund!
  • I'm not a supporter of ethanol subsidies, a policy that Barack Obama has supported. But come to think of it, John McCain would mock me for opposing Barack Obama's position before I've ever visited an ethanol refinery!
Ok, enough with the examples. Hopefully by now the silliness of McCain's criticism is clear. All of these examples involve cases in which reasonable people can come to beliefs about the world in ways other than direct observation: I've seen Ferraris drive by and have read about their high performance; I've seen pictures of poisonous spider bites; I'm an economist and understand how markets work and so know what the effects of the gas-tax holiday would be; I'm an economist who reads newspapers and thus understand that ethanol subsidies both are likely to and appear to have had some bad effects. In these examples, personal observation or experience is either unnecessary, undesirable, or beside the point.

In some cases, personal observation or experience can be very helpful to formulating a position (turns out I really like the arugula in Italy -- hard to know this without trying it). In others it is beside the point.

Iraq/Afghanistan policy is much closer to the latter case than the former. One can learn lots of information by reading the news, reading blogs, and even by using, say, the laws of reason. No doubt, as a sitting U.S. Senator and presumptive major-party presidential nominee, Barack Obama has access to even better sources of information that these! Can any reasonable person seriously believe that a scripted, days-long trip to the region is more important than his using those sources effectively over an extended period of time?

I do not mean to suggest that Obama's trip to Afghanistan and Iraq (as well as other countries) is or necessarily has to be useless. Indeed, there is much to recommend such a trip. However, a day -- or even a few days -- doing canned visits to and meetings with foreign politicians, American troops and (say, in McCain's case) dangerous open-air markets with a regiment of U.S. Marines and air support strikes me as a particularly unreasonable sole basis for policymaking.

If you think I am wrong, then please tell me:
  • Do you have views about appropriate policies for Iraq/Afghanistan? Have you failed to visit Iraq/Afghanistan? If you answered "yes" to each question and think McCain has a point, then please deride the person in the mirror when you brush your teeth tonight.
  • Will pro-long-term-American-presence pundits who have never been to Iraq withdraw their stated positions and declare their own incompetence to prognosticate?
  • How frequently must politicians attend Iraq visits to be qualified to propose and make policy, i.e., what is the half-life on such visits? Where can I find out who qualifies so that I can ignore the others?

*Ok, it is true that I think economics is largely about common sense. Or, at least, that's what my forthcoming co-authored textbook will claim.


John Rose said...

Welcome back! I wholeheartedly agree that these trips are ridiculous. And you're right that McCain's "Obama hasn't been there" talking point seems to die hard. On the other hand, I don't think McCain was counting on Obama actually taking his advice and going to the Middle East. Combined with this latest Maliki endorsement of withdrawal, Obama is getting people used to the idea of him as commander-in-chief, and McCain is put on the defensive.

Ken Houghton said...

Uh, didn't Obama go there in 2006?

Why do we have to pretend that what John McCain says is true?

Anonymous said...

"I do not mean to suggest that Obama's trip to Afghanistan and Iraq (as well as other countries) is or necessarily has to be useless. Indeed, there is much to recommend such a trip."

There is little to recommend such a trip and much against it. Back in the prehistoric days of the Vietnam war, I.F. Stone always refused to go there. He said that being shown what those in charge wanted him to see would be worse than useless. He was right more often than anyone else.

Jonah B. Gelbach said...


you're arguing over a very minor point in my post. but i would note that obama has done more than be "shown what those in charge wanted him to see." he has also had a chance to meet the political leaders of both afghanistan and iraq, something that will both give him a sense of those leaders and help him counter the silly accusations that he is not qualified on foreign policy. moreover, on a more raw political level, he has now totally blunted one of the mccain campaign's lines of attack (however silly that line was on the merits).

so far, anyway, i think that obama has gained much from this trip, i.f. stone or not.

PinkBunny said...

This was an Interesting post!

I would agree that these trips should not be couunted as completely useless. To be quite frank, the trip was a first step for Obama to be in Iraq & Afghanistan to get a first look, and really respond to McCain's taunting that he go visit.

More importantly, it was a chance for the American Voters to see the difference for how World Leaders would perceive Obama vs McCain. After 8 years of declining relations between Europe and the US, there is a chance to bring about positive relationship building which was evidenced by the enthusiasm of our traditional allies abroad. In addition, as a new player, there is a cautious willingness on the Middle Eastern leaders to see how Obama and his leadership can help to diffuse the Middle East tensions without coming across as Israel's spokesperson. I think the jury is still out for them, but one thing that people should realize is Obama is actually a realist, as opposed to an delusional ideologist. I think the images have done a great job to show the American Voter how Obama might look as POTUS.

On the topic of experience and learnings, clearly you can't expect anyone to be an expert in 1 week, but I think it's more important to look at what fundamental characteristics and skill sets a presidential nominee brings to the table.

I think it's conventional wisdom that no one understands the demands and complexities of being President, than a former president. It's difficult to have any experience that can really help prepare you for being POTUS.

I think Obama brings a calm and strong leadership. He is firm in his convictions, but can assess and understand other view points, and adjust them when it is warranted. His ability to maintain a genial, but thoughtful demeanor conveys that he is a listener. He is a collaborator, and acknowledges the need for bi-partisan efforts. His intelligence and his speaking abilities leave me in no doubt of his capability to engage people in positive discussion.

I am very concerned with McCain's temperments and his arrogant presumption that this presidency is due him after years of service - not to mention his ability to grasp correct information and unwillingness to admit his errors.