19 January 2008

Why We're Going To Miss W

The most difficult trait for a leader is to be reliably right ex post. Any idiot can be right ex ante. After all, all the relevant data is at least knowable. That so many are so wrong ex ante just demonstrates what fundamentally stupid and irrational creatures we really are.

But being right ex post is genuinely hard. The most important facts -- what's going to happen between the decision and the result -- can't be known. From the point of view of the future, every decision is a gamble and in this game not even the true odds are known.

It is, therefore, remarkable that President Bush is right as often as he is. I'm thinking here, in particular, of his decision on funding research into embryonic stem cells. Given what we've discovered since, his decision that the federal government would fund primarily research into adult stem cells turned out to be the right decision scientifically. The world doesn't usually work like that: morality doesn't necessarily translate into doing what best from a purely utilitarian view point. Not torturing terrorists is the right decision, but pretending that there's no cost in the form of dead Americans because "torture doesn't work" is simply ignoring the cost of our decision.

A president who makes decisions that turn out for the best in the long run is invaluable. It might also be unknowable until the person actually becomes president. There was, for example, no way to know that Jimmy Carter would be the anti-W, a president who's every important decision turned out to be wrong. This does show, though, that democracy has no special talent for being right ex post.


aog said...

Yes, democracy's superiority is that ability to be right more often post facto. It's about correction / adaptation, not precognition.

Harry Eagar said...

But torture does work. In fact, the mere prospect of torture can work.

I don't know that knowing that it works has (or should have)any special bearing on what policy one decides is right, but choosing a path based on manifestly wrong concepts seems wrong to me.

Even if, occasionally, it turns out right.

As for stem cells, we're still waiting for the first trial, are we not?

Heck, I'm still waiting for fusion electricity generators to go commercial.

Harry Eagar said...

speaking of decisions, after that last post, I moved over to Amazon.

Top of the home page sez: What do customers buy after viewing this item? (Although I had not viewed any item yet). However, there was an answer:

54% buy Advanced Taser 18-L Black w/ Yellow . . .

17% buy Master Security Internal Pepper . . . (spray, I think)

15% buy Ratatouille DVD.

I'd like somebody to explain the rational decision-making behind that one.

Duck said...

I'd like somebody to explain the rational decision-making behind that one.

Harry, there's no rational decision making. It's all based on mining data from actual user behavior. Who ever said shoppers were rational?

Duck said...


Do you think Bush was right on the Medicare drug benefit? It will take several decades to call that one, but I have a feeling he wasn't.

Speaking of Carter, Bush's feeling about Putin was a miss of Carteresque proportions.

David said...


I'm agnostic about the drug benefit. It was probably good politics (people wanted it and, by getting on board, the President managed to head off the worst Dem ideas) but bad policy. The question is whether something worse would have passed if he had opposed it, a question on which I have no opinion.

As for Putin, he was wrong, but I don't think it was of Carteresque proportions just because Putin (and Russia) don't matter much. And, although W says nice things about Putin, he just goes ahead and does what he wants anyway (e.g., invade Iraq, expand NATO, etc.).

Harry Eagar said...

Don't want to hijack the thread, but I don't think Amazon is really mining data.

After some reflection, I figured out why the Taser item showed up on my page. I had hit on a blind link at (probably) Instapundit which carried me there.

Me and, I dunno, how many other hundreds or thousands of people.

Are we to believe that 54% of all visitors to the Taser page, including thousands of idly clicking wanderers, really bought Tasers and that 15% went on to buy Ratatouille DVDs?

I think I've discovered a scandal:
Amazon is faking its marketing comeons!

The innovational capability of the unrestrained capitalist is unlimited! Set them loose on prescription medicine.

David said...


They say that they're answering the question "What Do Customers Buy After Viewing This Item?" I assume that they are limiting the answer to customers who buy something. What percentage that is they are not telling us. The real question is, what do they mean by "after."