Nicholas Nassim Taleb of Black Swans fame calls it the narrative fallacy. In narrating the way something happens, one convinces oneself that it was inevitable, that it happened for good reasons. A nice illustration of it is the way in which Tom Peters’ In search of excellence took the top financially performing firms and then explicated their strategy. In the next period those firms that we’d been told had gone ‘in search of excellence’ performed unusually badly. Their original out-performance was luck, not excellence.
One of the things I routinely find infuriating is when the future is predicted with great assurance by some know-all – journalists often fit this bill. For instance all those calls by journalists that “It will take the Liberals at least two terms to get back”. Then something else would go wrong and they’d say sagely – “Now it’s at least three”.
A corollary of this tendency are these kinds of assurances.
The massive resistance Republicans posed to Clinton in 1993 is impossible to imagine today. The Republican coalition is utterly shattered, and the angry white Palin wing of the party, for all its visibility, is a minority even within a minority. What’s in it for a moderate Republican senator like Richard Lugar of Indiana (who tacitly endorsed Obama), Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, or Olympia Snowe of Maine to resist Obama on health care or climate change?
Yes, folks that’s Mark Schmitt in Prospect Magazine just after the American election in 2008. Doesn’t look very good does it. I’m no sage, but I would never have bought that even at the time. As Krugman points out:
early on the administration had a political theory: it would win bipartisan legislative victories, and each success would make Republicans who voted no feel left out, so that they would vote for the next initiative, and so on. (By the way, read that article and weep: “The massive resistance Republicans posed to Clinton in 1993 is impossible to imagine today.” They really believed that.)
This theory led to a strategy of playing it safe: never put forward proposals that might fail to pass, avoid highlighting the philosophical differences between the parties. There was never an appreciation of the risks of having policies too weak to do the job.
And then it led the administration to keep claiming that the legislation it had gotten through was just right, long past the point when it was obvious that the policies were inadequate.
And they’re still doing it. This is crazy: when you’re well down in the polls, minimal steps that won’t move the economy and won’t grab voters’ imagination are just a way of guaranteeing a devastating defeat.
I can understand why the people who persuaded Obama to go for the capillaries might still be claiming that they have the right strategy; bu I don’t understand why Obama is still listening to them.
The NSW and Queensland Governments seem to be going to their graves with this kind of timidity moving a few deck-chairs and hoping against hope. A good politician is a global optimiser, not an exclusively local optimiser. Thing is you need judgement to get through the difficulties of a bit of pressure to get to some better place. It’s been in pretty short supply lately.