November 1, 2004 · Lessig
It took me too long to finish this book. A very close friend had recommended it, writing to me in an email “it is an interesting lesson in how idealism and rationality can become naive in Washington.”
That comment is as depressing as is the book. O’Neill is no idealist. He is, as I described before, a policymaker. He had had decades of experience in Republican administrations; he is a buddy of Greenspan, and had came to the Treasury from ALCOA, where he was Chairman and CEO. He joined the administration believing in the need for a tax cut. But he also believed that the Reagan administration had taught us one important lesson: That irresponsible tax cuts don’t pay for themselves; they instead control the domestic agenda for decades.
O’Neill framed a tax cut to fit the facts as they existed when he arrived. He continued to recommend changes to those policies as the facts changed, and the surplus was eroding into astonishing deficits. But as he pushed reality-based policymaking, he was increasingly resisted by politics-based aparachicki. When the facts became useless, the facts were forgotten.
This is the essence of O’Neill’s criticism of the administration. That they didn’t do the work. They chose policies that drove us into this astonishing deficit, willfully ignorant of the consequences, because to know of the consequences they would actually have to confront the facts. But the Rove-types are allergic to policy-related facts. And the President is painted throughout the book as he always seems throughout: totally incapable of thinking through complicated, factual questions about what should be done.
O’Neill’s portfolio was economics. But as a senior cabinet member, he watched the same evolve with the War. In a particularly depressing end, he watches as the President announces war on Iraq. As Suskind writes:
O’Neill listens to the speech and feels disembodied, as though the world he’d long known was untethered from its moorings. The President is showing conviction, but from what source? A little later, he attempted to make sense of it. ‘Conviction is something you need in order to act,’ he said to me. ‘but your action needs to be proportional to the depth of evidence that underlies your conviction. I marvel at the conviction that the President has in terms of the war. Amazing. I don’t think he has the personal experience …’ His voice trails off as he distills it one last time. ‘With his level of experience, I would not be able to support his level of conviction.‘”
And long before the true disaster of this war was apparent to everyone (except the Vice President), the book ends with this:
“O’Neill … was deeply fearful about the United States ‘grabbing a python by the tail … Trust me, they haven’t thought this through,’ he said. He was still hoping there would be ‘a real evidentiary hearing and a genuine debate’ before troops were committed. He knew that wasn’t likely. ‘When you get this far down the path … you want to have a heavy weight of evidence supporting you. If the action is reversible, or if a generation can erase its effects, it’s different than if you bring the world to the edge of a chasm. You can’t go back.’”
O’Neill’s politics are not mine. But the point is, O’Neill is much more than politics — as just about every Administration in modern times before this one was. He’s not your typical conservative — ALCOA confronted the issue of Global Warning (at the time when the President still denied there was such a thing) and issued an aggressive plan for dealing with it; and remember, this is the guy who went to Africa with Bono. But he came to the Administration committed to the values the President said he was for. He left recognizing the particularly pathology that defines this Administration — politics without policy. “Principle” as hype, rather than principle.
And this, then, is the depressing part about my friend’s email. Is it really “naive” to expect that senior policymakers would use facts to do policy? Has reality become “idealism”?
Recall Suskin’s piece in the Times:
The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Count me in the “idealist” camp. The sort that believes in “reality-based” policy making.
And count this as yet another Orwell moment.