Democracy, Policy, and the Experts

The Death Of Expertise
Tom Nichols
The Federalist
January 17, 2014

The Internet has been accused of many things. It has been condemned as a destroyer of value. It has been reviled as the hiding place of gangsters and perverts. And now, in the pages of The Federalist, self-styled social science and public policy expert Tom Nichols accuses it of destroying expertise.

Nichols’ point, brutally summarized, is that by appearing to make everyone’s opinion of equal value, the Internet is slashing the value of an expert’s opinion to essentially zero. That’s dangerous, he says. To kill expertise is to reject knowledge and how we gain it. It is to raise the value of the opinions of people like Jenny McCarthy over those of doctors.

All agreed: we don’t want experts to go away. They offer tremendous value in society, and we would be lost without them.

And he is so very, very right when he notes:

People in political debates no longer distinguish the phrase “you’re wrong” from the phrase “you’re stupid.” To disagree is to insult. To correct another is to be a hater. And to refuse to acknowledge alternative views, no matter how fantastic or inane, is to be closed-minded.

All Hail the Expert

If this were as far as he took his argument, he would have won the day. Unfortunately, after a good start, Nichols goes off the rails in some important ways that hint at a larger, darker agenda.

He deems as “sanctimonious” and “silly” the idea that every person has a right to his or her own opinion. He launches into a screed against the incompetent taking part in discussions in the public arena. How dare, he suggests, that people who “can barely find their own nation on a map” have strong views on going to war? How dare those who cannot name their legislator have an opinion about how Congress handles a piece of legislation?

How dare, he asserts, anyone have an opinion on a field in which he is not an expert? Only experts, he implies, should be allowed to be heard on anything, unless, of course, the electorate become experts themselves. He doesn’t want a technocracy, mind you:

But when citizens forgo their basic obligation to learn enough to actually govern themselves, and instead remain stubbornly imprisoned by their fragile egos and caged by their own sense of entitlement, experts will end up running things by default. That’s a terrible outcome for everyone.

The threat: either people get a lot smarter about policy, or the experts are going to take over. We’ll let you have your opinions, but we control will remain in the hands of the people trained to run things.

It is sad that Nichols did not quit while he was ahead, making a case that we need to use care where we tread. In suggesting that we have a binary choice between everyone getting a lot smarter really quickly on the one hand, and letting the experts run things on the other, he is being disingenuous: the only likely outcome of those two is technocracy. And so what this article becomes is a case for the experts to take over.

Who is an Expert?

The reasons to distrust this reasoning are manifold. Let us dispose of the easy ones right away.

First, anyone who declares himself an expert is, in my opinion, immediately suspect. If someone who is in a position to know declares you an expert, you may well be one. If you declare yourself an expert, your status is suspect. Declare yourself a specialist or a professional if you must, but allow others do declare you an expert, a master, an authority.

Second, if we grant that he is an expert, his argument on behalf of the primacy of experts is self-serving, and thus suspect. In this, he is little different from the journalists decrying the Internet because it means we are reading less journalism. I feel bad for them, but the horse has left the barn, and experts, like journalists and the rest of us, are all facing a different world.

Trusting Experts

So, let us say that Nichols is an expert, and that he is being selfless. Handing over our policy decisions and our fates is a path fraught with problems. Primary among those “who gets to decide who the experts are?” Expertise is subjective, and the determination of whether someone is an expert demands other experts in that field. Who then appoints those people? This works us into a circular argument, and we wind up with a lot of people claiming expertise, but no objective way of making that determination.

I spent two decades working in China, and three decades studying it. Am any more or less an “expert” in China business than a newly-minted Harvard Ph.D. who did his dissertation on my field? Or than a journalist who has covered business in China for twenty five years? Says who? And why? You see where this is taking us. Multiply this problem by hundreds of fields, and the issue of determining expertise becomes non-trivial.

Once we have decided who the experts are, which ones do we trust? Any competent trial lawyer or white-shoe K Street lobbyist will tell you that on any issue, there are experts, but that often no two experts will reach the same conclusion, and often their conclusions will be diametric. Brookings, RAND, Heritage, CATO, and the Progressive Policy institute are all staffed by experts, but if you got all of their experts on any given issue in a room, you would have a war. Who decides among them and their recommendations?

Further, a reliance on experts implies that there are only two classes of people in any given field of knowledge: experts, and laymen, and only the former have value. This is poppycock. Apart from those with the highest level of mastery are polymaths (who are deeply conversant in multiple fields, though not necessarily expert in more than one;) apprentices, students, enthusiasts, buffs, and talented amateurs. People at any of these levels can make profound contributions to their fields.

Three examples jump to mind. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp proved the value of amateur astronomy when they discovered the comet that was later named after them. A clerk in the German patent office turned astrophysics upside down when he wrote a short paper describing a general theory of relativity. And corporate finance executive Edward Miller, Jonathan Parshall, a software executive, and Anthony Tully, an IT support specialist each conducted research and wrote books that have forced us to reevaluate the history of World War II in the Pacific.

Broad-based Problems, Narrow Solutions

But among all of these, the biggest problem is the nature of expertise itself. Experts are expert, by definition, because they spend their lives focused on a narrow enough field that they are able to achieve a greater degree of knowledge than most others in their field. For that reason, they are excellent at answering specialized and narrow questions. Unfortunately, their expertise is of declining value as they touch on questions that have implications far beyond their narrow field of expertise, and it is axiomatic that many of the most vexing problems faced by government go far beyond an expert’s ken.

Elizabeth Coleman, who retired from the presidency of Bennington College last year after a quarter century in the role, frames the problem with experts more eloquently:

Over the past century the expert has dethroned the educated generalist to become the role model of intellectual accomplishment. While expertise has had its moments, the price of its dominance is enormous. . . . Questions such as “What kind of a world are we making?”“What kind should we be making?” “And “What kind can we be making?” move off the table.

These are precisely the kinds of questions our polity faces today.  You can substitute “nation” if you think “world” is too arrogant, but the issue stands. These are not the kinds of questions Mr. Nichols and his fellow experts are best suited to answer. They are the kind left to the rest of us.

The Tyranny of Experts

Which brings us to the final problem. Nichols contends that the idea that we all have a right to our own opinion is silly and sanctimonious. He is wrong. Giving us each the right to our own opinion, to express it, and to be proven wrong or vindicated is an essential part of the American democracy. To suggest otherwise steps beyond the arrogance of a learned man in awe of his credentials: it is to place us on the road to a technocratic tyranny where we are all the docile wards of the incredibly smart.

Aldous Huxley would have recognized what Nichols is suggesting, as would anyone who has read Huxley’s Brave New World. It is a world where because all men are not equal, their say in the way the world is run is not equal. That may appeal to the elitists. But that is not democracy, that is not the way the founders of the United States meant this country to be, and it is not a country that I would want to live in, either as an expert or a layman.

Let us keep this in mind: experts have value in that they should always be invited to inform the broader debate. Laymen need to think more critically and question the definitive statements of those who are not deeply knowledgable in the field in question. When faced with an expert versus a layman, deference should be paid to the point of view of the expert, but critical deference should be paid to all.

But experts should never be allowed to dominate that debate or, even worse, by dint of their knowledge be allowed to circumvent it. They are our servants. We shall not be theirs.

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Getting to “Yes” On Pension Reform

Pension Reform Handbook: A Starter Guide for Reformers
L
ance Christensen and Adrian Moore

The Reason Foundation
July 2014

On the day when the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld a state law against the unionization of public employees, our neighbors over at the Reason Foundation have issued a study on pension reform. Lance Christensen and Adrian Moore, both of whom have extensive experience in the trenches trying to fix dysfunctional government, frame the study as a guidebook for legislators and others who need to make reform happen.

I will confess that I do not know enough about state employee pensions to make any emphatic statement about government employee pension reform, but like most citizens, I am caught in a quandary. Part of me wants to give police and firefighters a comfortable retirement. But the other part of me is aghast at how high the bill for public employment has climbed as a percentage of GDP. There has to be a way of taking care of the people who serve us without bleeding the populace or shutting vital public services.

I believe a solution is possible, but it demands that we as the people insist that process be open, transparent, and free from the influence of special interests that would freeze the process. And it starts with jettisoning some ideological baggage. If we Republicans are willing to grant that public workers have to be protected from exploitation, Democrats must be willing to grant that the status quo is set to bankrupt American government.

GAO: Government Struggles to Track Money and Performance

Unaccountable Government: GAO Reports Show Feds Struggling to Track Money and Performance
Committee on Oversight & Government Reform
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July 10, 2013

Pork Barrel BBQ
Pork Barrel BBQ (Photo credit: joshbousel)

Three more incidents that highlight management issues in the government, specifically the IRS, the National Park Service, and the Bonneville Power Administration. Naturally, these are anecdotal, but they hint at a more widespread problem.

Debates I have had with liberals have them suggesting that the real problem with government is not wastage, but too much defense spending and corporate welfare. When I have the same discussion with conservatives, they say entitlements are the issue.

The answer, I suspect, lies somewhere in the vortex between the three positions. First, there are programs for which the government should not be paying, and those exist in the pet projects and pork barrel coming from both sides of the aisle. But at the same time, there is a constant stream of evidence that we are wasting vast sums via poor management, ineffectiveness, and outright malfeasance.

This is not a matter of “what to attack first.” It ALL has to be attacked. We don’t need to expand government or contract government as much as we need to right-size the levels of regulation and expenditure. In order to do that, both what government does AND how it does it must be on the table.

Taxes on Talent

“How Much Does an A-list Actor Make… and Spend?”
Claude Brodesser-Akner
Vulture
1/29/12

While we’re out there campaigning for everyone to pay their fair share of taxes, let us not forget that our dear friends in Tinseltown often live in their own tax-sheltered Nirvanas.

Think about that the next time you allow a celebrity of any political stripe urge you to vote on anything. And talk a look at the graphic in this superb Vulture post.

Starting a Manufacturing Rennaissance

“As I tried to do as governor of Utah, I wanted to make our state a safe haven for the attraction of capital. That’s going to take tax reform. It’s going to take a look at our regulatory regime. It’s going to take a look at the repatriation of overseas profits, giving them an opportunity to come home for reinvestment purposes. It’s going to take a widespread effort with all the states in America, all the governors, state legislatures, to begin to retool ourselves in the form of job training and vocational skill development. We used to do that very well in the old days, but we’ve lost our connection with it. That’s got to be a critically important part of preparing for whatever manufacturing renaissance is on the horizon.”

Jon Huntsman, Jr.

 

Should Olympic Champions Pay Taxes on Honoraria?

“Winning a gold medal brings a $9,000 tax bill”
Chris Chase
Yahoo! Sports
August 1, 2012

I have to take exception to the position of my fellow Republican Marco Rubio. Our problem in America is that we have so many exemptions from taxes that our tax code is hopelessly complex and difficult to enforce. If the working stiffs who loaded the plane that sent our Olympians to London had to pay taxes on their earnings, why should the Olympians be exempt?

The payment of taxes is a responsibility of citizenship, and if we believe in the concept of equal treatment under the law, we must not make such exemptions.

Being an Olympian makes you a hero, not less of a citizen. Let the Olympians pay their taxes.

Sideshow of the Day: Who owns the Bush Tax Cuts?

 

Taxes
Taxes (Photo credit: Tax Credits)

Who ‘Owns’ The Bush Tax Cuts? : It’s All Politics : NPR.

All this debate over who gets credit for the “Bush Tax Cuts” is deck-chair rearrangement. The real issue is that the tax system is broken, and that in order to fix it we have to return to a debate about the fundamentals of government finance: what should be paid for and who should be paying for it.

Ours is not the only system of taxes in the world, and many things have changed since the country decided to tax incomes in 1913.

Next year wil be the 100th anniversary of the permanent income tax. Is it not time for us to re-examine the assumptions under which it was imposed, and begin to consider alternative tax constructs?

Worst case scenario: even if we wind up back where we started, we will have at least reminded the American public that while our system of government finance is not ideal, it is the best choice available given our national circumstances.

Best case scenario: we make everything a whole lot simpler, and we improve the implicit equity of the system so we don’t have to make taxes a constant political football.