On the “One More on the Koch Brothers” thread, the following exchange occurred, which calls for a long enough response that I decided to promote it to top-page status.
Michael Heath: I suggest reading Climate Progress, you’ll get a feel for the what the executive branch is continually doing with the limited powers it has without congressional support.
James Hanley: Well, I do pride myself on understanding how government actually works rather better than they do. They can repeat what’s in the news, but real analysis of the politics isn’t their strength.
Michael Heath: I didn’t know you read Climate Progress to the point you’re capable of criticizing their ability, and mine, to assess whether they’re accurately reporting and analyzing administrative efforts to mitigate for climate changes given constraints on the Executive – good and bad. Here are two examples…
A report on the President’s initiative regarding energy savings on commercial buildings that will be in the President’s next budget proposal: http://goo.gl/CWsR0 . There’s an embedded link in this article of a PDF of the president’s White House paper. It notes:
The President signed an Executive Order directing federal agencies to achieve zero net energy by 2030 and employ high-performance and sustainable design principles for all new construction and alterations. At least 15 percent of existing buildings need to meet these guiding principles by FY 2015.
…James – it appears you are extremely confident in your ability to assess issues from afar as if they all fit a particular narrative consistent with your perspective of how politics works. I’ve found that it’s difficult to impossible to make such assessments on individual issues without actually first becoming well-informed.
Well, yes, I’m rather confident in my ability to assess how government actually functions. My major comprehensive field as a grad student was American Government, with emphasis areas in the presidency and constitutional law. One of the advantages of developing an expertise in a particular area is that you can assess something at a glance with more acuity than the non-expert can with much closer inspection. Merely accumulating facts does not in itself lead to real understanding.
For example, the richest woman in the world is a Chinese woman who made her fortune by buying scrap newspaper from the U.S. (where we have a recycling glut), shipping it to Asia (because container space going west across the Pacific is dirt cheap due to less flow of goods that way), and then shredding it to use as packing material for goods coming back to the U.S. from Asia. I knew every step in that process: I knew there was a glut of recycled newspaper in the U.S.; I knew container space going west was cheap; and I knew newspaper could be used for packing. There’s not one bit of that process that required any specialized or uncommon knowledge. I knew all the facts, so well that when I heard about this woman I had a Huxley moment (“How stupid of me not to have thought of that”) and literally slapped myself on the forehead. But knowing the facts was not sufficient, else I would be rich (and, dammmit, I have the contacts to have made it happen!). But I didn’t, so I’m not.
Now the folks at Climate Progress are not political scientists, however skilled they are in other areas and they rely primarily on journalistic reports. And the overwhelming majority of journalists don’t know their asses from their elbows when it comes to politics–they are impressed by personalities, claims, and issues, rather than having any real ability to analyze what’s going on from a functional perspective. One of my favorite pastimes is laughing my ass off at the television talking heads. No, that’s not true. They drive me absolutely batshit crazy, and it’s not really very amusing at all.*
Let’s take the case of the executive order mentioned above. It’s all well and good, and it’s perfectly in line with what I said about Obama honestly wanting to do something about climate change. But here are the important elements about an executive order. First, it’s something the President can do unilaterally–he doesn’t have to invest any real political capital in it, so he’s not taking any serious effort and risk that would demonstrate real, serious, commitment to making important changes. Second, he mostly won’t be around to see it come to fulfillment–most of the costs are incurred not now, under his watch, but in the future. The exception is having 15% of federal buildings meet those guidelines by 2015, but I’d hypothesize that either they’re already close to that goal, so that it’s not really that hard to meet, or they’re simply not going to meet it, and he’ll just issue a new executive order readjusting the date–he can do that because issuing executive orders is so easy. Finally, it’s not binding because he may not be around in 2015, and he certainly won’t be around after 2016, and the succeeding president may or may not be interested in continuing the policy (imagine a President Palin, or Bachman, or Santorum–although thankfully those odds are vanishingly remote).
In short, his executive order is more of a signaling device than a substantive policy. As a signal it serves two purposes, one electoral and the other substantive. Electorally its a signal to his supporters. It says, “hey, look, I’m serious about climate change.” Substantively it signals a policy approach that perhaps his successors will continue. The perhaps is the strongest element of it, but the substantive signal is not meaningless–it may be harder for a future president to turn off that path, if it becomes well-established, than it would have been for them to never get started on it. So by beginning this, it’s possible Obama’s set a precedent that will be continued, but it’s not certain.
That’s not rocket science, obviously. Any moderately intelligent adult citizen can follow that logic, and any adult citizen who follows politics already knows all the factual elements, so it almost seems as if nothing new has been said. But the key, as with newspapers and shipping, is in putting all those pieces together. Not to boast, but my expertise in this area (this area, I’m not claiming expertise in everything) allows me to see that at a glance, whereas most people are looking only at the expressed goal–they are seeing the signal, and little, if anything, else.
Additionally, there is another reason to not get overly enthusiastic about Obama’s executive order. Executive orders are a part of the on-going shift of political power away from Congress and toward the executive branch, which is eroding our system of constitutional checks and balances. Nobody ever cares about this, as long as the executive order has a good end. But a handful of us stupid experts do still care about it, and consequently I think executive orders should be much more limited in extent than they are. To use them as a means of setting domestic policy is to usurp what is properly Congress’s authority. You won’t find any journalist who’ll take that seriously, and if you find anyone at Climate Progress who understands that, point him out to me so I can send him a bottle of scotch in praise. This is an area where the non-experts are completely missing the boat, and while they feel quite sophisticated about their detailed understanding of Obama’s executive order, they are completely blind to the issue of this on-going power shift. Being a news junkie isn’t going to allow a person to become aware of this problem because the media folk are almost unanimously ignorant of it. All they know is that presidents issue executive orders, so they applaud the ones they like and criticize the ones they don’t like, and they think they’ve engaged in “analysis.”
When it comes to government most people are more focused on outcome than on process. Granted that process is not God, and that there are rare crisis occasions when it should not be allowed to stand in the way, but it remains true, as legal scholar Alexander Bickel wrote, that ”the highest morality almost always is the morality of process,” and it remains true that each subversion of our constitutionally ordered process occurs within a broader arena of an on-going shift of power from legislative to executive, and that to focus solely on whether this particular executive order achieves a desired goal is to look at it in isolation, abstracted from the big picture of how American political authority is shifting.
So do I feel comfortable that I can assess these things better than the folks at Climate Progress? Yeah, I do, and I’m rather surprised at the implication that I shouldn’t. My expertise is not their expertise, but equally theirs is not mine. As it turns out, the issues do all fit the narrative that is consistent with my view of how politics works, because–as I’ve noted before–I’m less issue-oriented and more analytically oriented; my approach to understanding politics is a functional analysis approach. Clearly that message is not getting through clearly. It could be, at least in part, my failure to clearly explain it, but I’m fairly confident that part of it is just the normal difficulty that politically aware people have of separating themselves from their attachment to particular issues.** Really it’s just a perceptual shift, but I see the difficulty my students have in making that shift, and I see the difficulty my friends and colleagues have in making that shift. But it’s something fundamentally different than just paying attention to issues and knowing lots of details.
*Believe me, you can’t imagine the way political scientists feel about journalists and pundits–with exceptions for a small handful of them, it’s a mixture of intense disdain for their idiocy mixed with a furious jealousy that people are actually listening to them instead of us. But since the public is also more impressed by personalities and claims than functional analysis, we’ll never get much public respect.
**One of the reasons I can’t be the kind of rabid libertarian people assume I must be the moment I say I’m a libertarian is that I’ve been too professionalized to gain that kind of attachment to most issues.