Saturday, August 30, 2008

Prior Commitment And Addressing Basic Questions In A Cool Hour
With Comments on National Experience vs. Executive Experience

So, I harp on this a lot in person, and I've harped on it a bit here in the past:

One good technique for increasing the degree of objectivity in one's decision-making is to decide on issues ahead of time, in a cool hour. We can't, of course, foresee all issues we'll have to decide upon ahead of time, though. So it pays to think about certain basic issues ahead of time and take steps to develop (flexible, fallibilistic) positions on those issues.

Here's a relevant basic issue we really ought to develop some kind of collective wisdom on ahead of time: which, if either, is really more important for a president: national experience or executive experience.

Now, as it turns out, I do have a position on this. Unfortunately, it isn't worth much because it was developed fairly unreflectively. I've always been inclined to think that national experience was more important than executive experience. Accordingly, I've had a tendency to prefer Senators to Governors. But, that may just be because Senatorial voting records give us evidence that is more relevant to evaluating what someone will be like as a president. (A well-known strategic disadvantage for Senators...but an advantage from the perspective of those who are interested in making a reasonable decision.) That kind of preference is only marginally relevant here.

Thing is, having had neither national experience nor executive experience (nor, in fact, any political experience at all), my hunches here are pretty worthless. But this is probably an issue that we could answer if we were really interested in doing so. There are people who have had both kinds of experience, and who could say informative things about the question.

Needless to say, few people are really interested in finding the truth at a time like this, though. In a cool hour, we might be able to do it. Now, it's all about the spin and rationalization. But in a cool hour, it's very difficult to get people interested in such questions.

One of the most notorious failures along these lines of recent years, incidentally, came during the recount debacle of 2000. One central issue--should hand-counts be used when the margin of victory fell below a certain percentage?--had been extensively addressed and conclusively answered ahead of time. The uncontroversial answer is yes. Machine counts are approximations that can replace hand-counts for most elections, in which the margin of victory is generally sufficiently large to make the approximations sufficiently precise. But the margin of victory in Florida in 2000 fell below this threshold; machine counts were of little use under such conditions. Everyone involved realized this, including the voting-machine manufacturers and George W. Bush. There is absolutely no doubt about it: hand-counts should have been conducted, and that was the decision all the principals had made ahead of time, in a cool hour. Although on most ways of re-counting, Bush would still have won, the Bush campaign did not realize that at the time, and, so, deployed a number of sophistical arguments to convince the public that hand-counts were less accurate than machine counts. This was a lie, but it worked. Consequently, there is a very strong sense in which the election of 2000 was not legitimate, even though it may very well have produced the same result that a legitimate election would have produced.

So prior commitment in a cool hour won't solve all problems--in particular, it won't help if we reject such commitments when they are politically inconvenient. But it's a useful tool, and can help us be more objective in many cases.


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