Feb 26, 2011

The dumbest guy in the room

In a room full of senators, their staff, press people, and the president, the one who is least qualified to be making executive decisions on far-reaching policy is the president himself.

And that’s exactly how it should be.

Think about it: he’s only human. Like us, he only gets 24 hours in a day, most of which is taken up by sleeping, shitting, showering, eating, waiting on airplanes, waiting in cars, and it doesn’t leave much free time for deep personal study. Economic theory, moral philosophy, law history, legal opinion, business, and any other of a range of topics usually touched on by most laws advocated by the president, not one is he an expert on. Even the guys and gals that spend their entire lives studying and get multiple PhDs in their field are usually specialized. Economists have to pick between macro and micro; international or local business; money theory, commodities, or securities and investments.

The president is the master of skin-deep understanding, scratching the surface of dozens of topics daily, and the least qualified of all. But that’s okay. He’s human and we should acknowledge that. It’s no serious fault.

But it also means that we shouldn’t deify him, placing unreasonable expectations on his simple shoulders. And it also means he shouldn’t bullshit us and work the hype machine on promises he has absolutely no chance of delivering on.

It’s fine for him to discuss his principles before, during, and after election, so that we know where his priorities and direction lie. Obama can and should spout his progressive statist crap at us. I may disagree with him, but don’t get up there and insult our collective intelligences by insinuating, directly or indirectly, that you know anything about how to fix the economy. You don’t. Most economists are guessing anyway, and even if they weren’t you aren’t an economist!

Presidents need to have some very important qualities to be effective. They need charisma to be an effective leader and representative of the nation to the rest of the world and internally. They need to be cool and calm under pressure, able to make careful decisions in even the gravest of situations. Sure, this means that most of the time they can feel boring and uncaring. Remember when everyone bitched and moaned that Obama didn’t get pissed off enough about the BP spill and their general incompetence in fixing the situation? I’m sorry, it may be boring, but the last thing I want is a president with a habit of flipping his shit and firing off a few dozen executive orders in a fit of rage. That kind of irrational impulsive behavior isn’t good to have in a person with such power.

They also need to be humble, and frankly too often they get drunk with power and fail this one. I understand the extreme import and power we bestow on presidents is tempting and it corrupts egos. And I truly believe that despite the awful policies, these guys mean well. They think they are helping, that with their magical powers they will fix everything.*

Humbleness to admit ignorance, to stand up and boldly declare you haven’t got the answers, but that you will find the smartest and best in their field and source them for advice and listen well. Being an effective leader and decision-maker is less about becoming a has-all-the-answers-type and more about knowing how to get them.**

* Years ago I watched an anime series called Mahou Tsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto (lit. Things That Are Precious To a Mage and usually referred to as its alternate title, Someday’s Dreamers). The basic gist of the short series was that magic is real, some people are born with it, but life and the world is mostly the same despite. Mages, once latent ability is discovered, often go into formal training with magician businesses that train and employ them. These businesses sell their magicians as a service, allowing the public to buy magical favors though it is heavily regulated. The series is mostly slice-of-life following a young girl who recently discovered her powers and the coming-of-age out of country-naivety during her training. Underneath that, though, is a theme of the limitation of magic. Magic is powerful and its possibilities are limitless with proper training and control of the powers, but it rarely truly solves anyone’s problems, which is why the world is, despite magic’s existence, mostly the same as our world. The mages are assigned to a request and seek to resolve it to the satisfaction of the patron and part of the challenge is figuring out what the person really wants, as it is often at odds or completely different from the request itself. The girl, in her naivety, wants to help people and means well but often makes matters worse. Early on, she seeks to repay a man’s kindness for helping her find where to go during her first time in the big city by conjuring a large pile of money on him (she doesn’t yet know that this is against the law, akin to counterfeiting). The man, though, is insulted, and throws it angrily back at her, saying that he was only trying to be kind and generous and the money cheapens the courtesy. The series often explores this idea that despite having these extreme powers, nothing ever really changes and rarely does it ever truly make people happy.

** Interestingly, this point also applies a lot to programmers like me. Being an effective developer these days, what with the complexity of modern programming languages and APIs, is less about being all-knowing when it comes to framework classes and methods and more about knowing where to look to find answers when you need them. Anybody can learn C# and put together a WinForms app, but it takes a careful eye, a skill in Googling effectively, and a bit of experience researching bugs or error messages to fix the inevitable trip-ups during testing or deployment or whatever.

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