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Pres. Obama Calls for New “Epistemology Czar”

Yesterday, Pres. Obama and Vice Pres. Biden declared that the $787 billion stimulus program enacted in February would create or save 600,000 jobs in the next 100 days. The president said it had already created or saved 150,000 jobs. On Sunday, his advisor David Axelrod said the plan had “produced hundreds of thousands of jobs.” Vice Pres. Biden recently said “the act is on track to generate or save 3.5 million jobs by September 2010,” according to Reuters.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Jared Bernstein, an economic advisor to the vice president, “said in an interview that the president’s citation of 150,000 [jobs saved or created] is ‘an estimate’ based partly on what the economy would look like in the absence of the stimulus package. But Bernstein said he could not break down how many of those jobs were created versus saved. ‘That’s a division we’re not able to make at a level of accuracy we’re comfortable with,’ he said.”

As William McGurn noted in the Wall Street Journal, Sen. Max Baucus recently expressed unease with the unfalsifiable “create or save” formulation: “You created a situation where you cannot be wrong,” said the Montana Democrat. “If the economy loses two million jobs over the next few years, you can say yes, but it would’ve lost 5.5 million jobs. If we create a million jobs, you can say, well, it would have lost 2.5 million jobs.”

Today, Pres. Obama announced a bold new initiative to rescue the nation from the “false choice” between “hopeful, inspiring press conferences and media events featuring me and members of my administration” and “fatuously precise data, ultimately based on guesswork, delivered by me and members of my administration.” He is appointing the nation’s first “Epistemology Czar,” who will direct the White House Council of Counterfactual Analysis. “The American people are tired of the old, cynical politics,” Obama said. “They made clear last November that they are ready for leaders who will describe events that have not gone through the formality of taking place with the same detail as ones that have.”

Robert Gibbs, White House Press Secretary, later informed reporters that the Council of Counterfactual Analysis had already produced several valuable reports. They show that: 217,000 Americans are already “feeling a little better, thanks” in anticipation of major health care reforms; General Motors is “37% less bankrupt” than it would have been without federal bailout funds; and Vice Pres. Biden says “4 more weird things” in an average week than he would if he were still in the Senate. Mr. Higgs said the council consists of three metaphysicians appointed by the president, and a staff of 12 civil-service researchers on loan from the Journal of Irreproducible Results. He noted, however, that once one took into account the multiplier effect of the spending by members of the council, plus the additional employment generated by academic, journalistic and research organizations trying to read their reports, the full number of people employed by the council is “probably a couple thousand. Or something.”

Discussions - 7 Comments

Long way to go for an esoteric snark. We already had an epistemology czar in Rumsfeld: There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.

How different is this from BushCheney's claim that they prevented additional terrorist attacks from taking place, and justified torture and an unnecessary war as necessary for achieving such unverifiable counterfactuals? On the score of which idiotic claim got more people killed, I'm not sure this is an argument that you really want to be making.

Most excellent...

Ren and Red: I take your point, but think you’ve missed mine. The world is not a laboratory, where we can isolate variables to test hypotheses about causal relationships. That being the case, any governmental action intended to keep some problem from getting worse is going to be open to second-guessing. Maybe the Taliban would have stopped harboring Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan if the U.S. had not gone to war there after 9/11. Maybe the New York City crime rate would have plunged on its own in the 1990s, even if Rudy Giuliani hadn’t deployed more police, more effectively. One of the perverse realities of democratic politics is that there are weaker incentives to prevent a problem than to solve one. If the government prevents something bad, the very fact that it didn’t happen means that a lot of people are going to wonder whether the trouble and expense of warding it off were wasted on phantom dangers.

There’s nothing unusual, then, about the Obama administration claiming that its policies are preventing the economy from being in even worse shape than it would be otherwise. What’s risible are the confident assertions that the policies have “created or saved” hundreds of thousand of jobs already, and will “create or save” millions in the months to come, when such quantifiable benchmarks cannot possibly be quantified. As long as there are still 3.5 million Americans employed by the end of next year, the Obamanauts can claim that, in the absence of their policies, there might have been 100% unemployment, so they met their goal of saving 3.5 million jobs.

Rather than issuing fatuous, unfalsifiable and speciously precise assertions that can’t be proven or refuted, it would be better to practice a little of what David Brooks calls “epistemological modesty,” foreswearing the pretense that we do know what we don’t or can’t know. If the economy gets better people will know it. They won’t need to enter a metaphysical hall of mirrors to speculate whether their own jobs were among the ones that were saved.

If the government prevents something bad, the very fact that it didn’t happen means that a lot of people are going to wonder whether the trouble and expense of warding it off were wasted on phantom dangers.

Does it not then follow that if they let it happen, make it worse, ore even do it themselves they(the government) are strenghthened.

Rather than issuing fatuous, unfalsifiable and speciously precise assertions that can’t be proven or refuted, it would be better to practice a little of what David Brooks calls “epistemological modesty,” foreswearing the pretense that we do know what we don’t or can’t know.

Isn't this precisely what Andrew Sullivan called the "conservatism of doubt"--for which he was pilloried by some here?

John, I think epistemological modesty resembles Sullivan's conservatism of doubt, but is not precisely the same thing. For the distinction, I turn to David Brooks, who reviewed Sullivan's The Conservative Soul in the New York Times two years ago. Noting that there was much to admire in the thinking and disposition of Sullivan's teacher, Michael Oakeshott, Brooks said that, nevertheless, "Oakeshott was wise, but Oakeshottian conservatism can never prevail in America because the United States was not founded on the basis of custom, but by the assertion of a universal truth — that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain rights. . . . Conservatives need to relearn the lessons of Burke and Hayek — that the world is complex, and efforts to transform it will have unintended consequences, most of them bad. But if American conservatives give up their optimism and their universal creed, they will once again be a small sect at the fringes of political life."

For good measure, Brooks notes that Sullivan's conservatism of doubt, as practiced by Sullivan, rarely involves expressions of doubt about his own principles and priorities, only other people's: "When Andrew Sullivan is most himself — on subjects like gay marriage and torture — he practices a politics that is the opposite of the politics of doubt. He is a fervent, passionate crusader. And when he crusades for gay marriage, for example, he is crusading for a radical change in the way we define the most fundamental unit of human society — a very un-Oakeshottian break from tradition."

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