Wednesday, October 31, 2007

"Worse Than Bush..."

So, I keep hearing people say that Giuliani would be worse than Bush... And a few hardy souls at the furthermost reaches of the Bush Dead-Ender brigade still try to defend their votes in '00 and '04 by saying that Gore or Kerry would have been worse than Bush.

But the worse x gets, the less plausible the claim becomes that a (roughly comparable) y would be worse than x. It's not absolutely impossible, of course, but it eventually becomes vastly improbable. There is virtually no chance, of course, that Gore would have been a worse president than Bush--even if he (Gore) did more-or-less as badly as he could do...even if he immediately started performing at his worst, and basically stayed there. He would almost certainly not have let OBL get away at Tora Bora, abandoned the war in Afghanistan prematurely, invaded Iraq, strengthened al Qaeda, or alienated the world. So it almost wouldn't matter what else he did.

And even if Giuliani is as bad a person as the most pessimistic lefties are saying, I have to say, I'm not worried that he will be worse than Bush. Another bad president in '09 will be a catastrophe for the U.S. and for the world--I'm certainly not suggesting that all we have to worry about is getting someone better than Bush. That would be to set the bar absurdly low. I am worried about getting a bad president--but I'm not really worried about getting one worse than Bush. Mere regression to the mean seems to make that extremely unlikely.

Anyway, I just find the "worse than Bush" talk foolishly hyperbolic given the facts available to us.


Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

"Bad person" is a bit of a trap, I think. With few exceptions, none of us are qualified to judge another's humanity, and for some odd reason, "bad persons" seldom seem to turn up on our own side of the aisle.

Neither is it particularly politically useful. Churchill may have been an unfeeling bastard, and likely was, but he saved the world. Jimmy Carter is putatively a "good person," but even his admirers admit he's an arrogant asshole, and only a brave few will advance that he was a good president.

LBJ was generally thought of as a not-nice man who only wanted to be loved, which explains his fight for civil rights and his war on poverty. But---despite the criticism from the right---the Great Society was essentially a good thing. The American poverty rate showed an immediate and permanent improvement, from over 20% to 13% or so, where it still is today. And the civil rights acts speak for themselves.

Adam Smith wrote that we find it impossible to credit the good that people do if we are hostile to what we think are their motives. (Such a wise man.) We should heed his caution. I myself suspect Obama is a "better" person than Hillary, but I prefer her as president.

I got a kick out of this:

"Yet war opponents and President Bush's foes are nothing if not determined. They're not likely to take this good news lying down. In the past, the media and the Democratic party have preferred to paint Iraq as an irretrievably violent place where we've already lost. The New York Times not long ago infamously editorialized that genocide was preferable to our current situation.

Even for lefty dead-enders, this narrative has become increasingly untenable. In order to avoid embarrassing themselves, the war's opponents in the press and politics will have to make a tactical adjustment of their own. Look for them in the coming weeks to try to shift the debate to the one area where Iraq has not progressed dramatically since the start of the surge--its stumble-prone central government."

"Dead-enders." What goes around comes around.

10:11 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

1. "Bad person" is a bit of a trap, I think. With few exceptions, none of us are qualified to judge another's humanity, and for some odd reason, "bad persons" seldom seem to turn up on our own side of the aisle."

Not true. We are very often qualified to judge how good other people are. When we're clear-headed, it may even be one of the things we're best at.

RG may be a good person or a bad person...I have not idea...but the trap is to try to invoke a generalized skepticism about moral knowledge in order to save one person from charges of being bad.

2. "Neither is it particularly politically useful. Churchill may have been an unfeeling bastard, and likely was, but he saved the world. Jimmy Carter is putatively a "good person," but even his admirers admit he's an arrogant asshole, and only a brave few will advance that he was a good president."

Again, probably not true. There's too much unclarity here about what's meant by 'good person' to be sure, though. I've heard it said that JC is a bit holier-than-thou, but never that he's an asshole.

But all of this is really off the point. In fact, the point was almost the opposite of what you seem to think: that, even if RG is an asshole, the odds are vanishingly small that he could be worse than Bush. So you seem to think we're somehow disagreeing on that, but I'm not seeing it.

3. I in no way deny that a bad person can be a good leader...but it's far less likely. I'll take an honest, good person as a leader over an evil genius just about any day. I think this is a very important point.

4. I do agree that many on the left have confused 'Bush is bad and the war was wrong' with 'we are/will lose'. I've never done that. I've always separated the two. I want to win and hope for it fervently. But none of that will change the fact that Bush is bad and the war was wrong. They have virtually nothing to do with each other.

There are, in fact, dead-enders on both ends. The Bush dead-enders refuse to acknowledge what is patently obvious to almost everyone in the world--Bush is bad, and the war was wrong.

I HOPE there end up being lefty dead-enders about success in Iraq, because that will entail that we win (i.e. that this world-historical screw up is a mere disaster and nothing worse). It's way too early to declare that done yet, but it looks one HELL of a lot better than it did three months ago).

Be careful not to misunderstand Smith's admonition. He doesn't seem to mean that motives don't matter. Rather, he seems to mean that if we DO make mistakes about people's motives, we will then make mistaken judgments about their actions. An obvious point, but obvious points are often still worth making.

10:59 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Oh, also: having read Manchester's biography of Churchill...I really didn't get any sense that he was an "unfeeling bastard."

11:01 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

If you want to defend Churchill against the racism-and-war-crimes crowd, be my guest. I could use a day off.

As to moral judgments of people, I think it's more likely to lead to demonizations of our opponents than any real level of truth. Per your own moral judgments of people, tell me about a couple of "bad persons" on your side of the aisle and I'll be more interested. Me, I don't happen to think that any of the major figures of our recent politics were bad persons.

[I will give you Nixon, altho it's more that he was a bit disturbed. Then again, if you look at his political record, he was quite the liberal, easily to the left of Bill Clinton. ;-) ]

As for Smith, I didn't know you'd got around to the Theory of Moral sentiments. The passage I was thinking of is here

and seems to me more an acknowledgment of our subjectivity (solipsism?) than any relation to actual moral truth or any discernment of objective good.

Which is why they're sentiments.

4:30 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

There's a big difference between saying that Churchill was unfeeling and saying that he was a racist. This is one of the unclarities to which I alluded.

I just can't even come close to agreeing with you on the moral judgments point. OBL, Saddam...the list goes on and on...terrible people, and you can't understand their actions if you don't understand that fact.

You...don't think...that any...ANY?...of the major figures of our recent politics...were bad persons? This is a claim that's so outlandish to me that I don't even know what to say about it. On the one hand I'm tempted to point out that a view like this is likely to lead to all sorts of false beliefs about America. Sadly, we are not nearly as exceptional as all that. So this may explain a lot.

On the other hand, I think the smart thing to do is just note that this indicates that we have such different views of the matter that--as we should already have suspected--discussion between us is fruitless.

The obvious point still holds: don't automatically assume that your opponents are evil just because you disagree with them.

But, again, that's part of what shoved me over toward the Dems...the conservative tendency to characterize all opposition as unpatriotic etc., all who disagree with us in the world either as evil or as cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Somehow American conservatives are the only people in the whole wide world capable of seething things aright.

Of course some people have lots of bad in them without being monsters. In fact, that's the kind of thing that causes more total harm in the world. Nixon (and much of his mafia), De Lay, probably Cheney...all bad and that's just the barest scratching of the surface. I'm cautious with such judgments

Bad people on the Dem's side abound, though, as I've said before, they tend to be kept out of the top of the reasons why I dislike the Dems far less. Meanness in a Dem tends to be treated, as it should be, as a vice; meanness in a Republican often seems to almost be revered. I don't think Johnson was a good person; frankly, I have my doubts about more than one of the Kennedys,...but only doubts. I've got a list, but I'm not going to list it, and I've got my reasons. With the Dems, craziness and stupidity is probably the bigger problem than meanness. Again: I've got my list... But It's tougher to tell with Dems, as meanness is not celebrated.

Re: Smith: yes, that's the passage alright. And, you'll note, it means what I said it meant.

What are the real vices to which the current crop of conservatives are more prone than liberals? Dogmatism and a tendency toward intellectual dishonesty--cheating for their own I'm thinking more of international disputes than domestic ones.

Evidence in these matters is always a big mess...a cloud of data pointing this way, that way...a mess. Some of it will ALWAYS point to the conclusion that your country is good, that your preferred position is right, that pushing people around is the thing to do, that what's in your national interest is moral. You can always make that case if you want to, you can always think it's true if you cheat *just a little*. And, IMHO, *that's* what's caused the most evil and misery in human history. This is a very, very important point. Conservatives, for example, pretend that Iranian antagonism to America came out of nowhere. They're just crazy! This is stupid. The Iranian government is bad, bad, bad. But, were I an Iranian, I can guarantee you that I would hate America. They've got way plenty of reason to do so.

Incidentally, I don't see this discussion going anywhere, so I think I'll be checking out. No offense, but, as I've said before, it seems to me that all these issues have been gone over in the past, and I'm too busy to type the same thing more than twenty or thirty times. So I've gotta be movin' on...

8:18 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

This is another of those issues that you've definitively settled in the past, altho the evidence for that is lacking.

What I see on the left (and in here) is a willingness to demonize the other side as "bad persons," which I find infantile. I don't believe the record shows that I moralize like that, and neither does criticism of the left by the right in general feature the word "evil."

Because if it did, I would oppose it.

And I added the weasel words "with few exceptions," on advice form my proctologist. Yes, Saddam was a bad person, and perhaps Nixon was, too. But I had recent American politics in mind, and would not use the word "evil" in reference to the other side.

"This is a struggle of good and evil. And we're the good."---infantile statement by Howard Dean, chairman of your party

I disagree about Smith. Because your opponents do not share your moral values and judgments [which petrify into dogma], you can have no common ground with them, no common language. Which is why you cannot accept dissent and you flip me off like this.

As for Iran, it might have more to do with Islam than Iranian-American history. We helped push the shah out for them, after all. Just a thought.

1:42 PM  

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