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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Check-Box Experience

I'd like to thank Dan M and the rest of the PB crew for having me back again. For those of you who don't know who I am (most of you, most likely), I'm an associate professor of economics at the University of Arizona. I'm very interested in law and in law & economics, though I don't have any formal legal training. I'll try to be clear in my posts about what I know and when I'm speculating/wondering. I should also note that, in addition to blogging here for the month, I'm also an occasional contributor to the Economists For Obama blog. Check it out if you're interested

We've heard a lot in this presidential election campaign about experience. Hillary Clinton said she had 35 years of it, John McCain's supporters say he has more than anyone elsee in galactic history, and both of them have at various times slammed Barack Obama (my guy, to be clear) for supposedly not having enough. Obama's response has regularly been that what matters is judgment, which of course he says he's got and McCain doesn't. Anyone with the most basic sense of politics would tell you that this is the obvious retort, and frame, for Obama to use, so no one should be surprised that he's doing so.

I happen to agree that judgment, rather than experience per se, is the more important issue. If you're not convinced on that point, then Sarah Palin would like to sell you on a bridge to nowhere. Maybe I'll write more about the distinction later, but for this post, I want to focus on why the argument about Obama's experience is wrong-headed.

Let me start by digressing. It happens that, in terms of academic achievement, professional acclaim, and so on, Paul Krugman is one of the leading international trade economists of his time, and also a top  macroeconomist (health and tax policy, about which he writes frequently, were never his academic focus, but I digress from my digression). As an economist who does applied research on a variety of public-policy issues, I frequently run into other economists who say something like this:

I was really happy when Paul Krugman started writing a column for the New York Times, but I really wish he would stick to what he knows, economics, instead of spending so much time talking about politics. At least he's qualified to write about economics.

Got that? Krugman's a professional economist, so while he's qualified to write about economics, he's out of his league when it comes to politics. And the people saying this are....other economists. So how do they know he's not qualified to write about politics? If no economist is qualified to do so, how does any economist know that no economist is? Now, this argument isn't fallacious -- after all, I'm quite certain that I'm unqualified to serve as chief physicist of U.S. nuclear weapons research, because I don't know very much at all about nuclear weapons (or even physics in general). In other words, I'm sensible enough to know that there are whole topics about which I'm just ignorant. But politics isn't like that: you read some stuff about current events, you pay attention to what politicians and their staffs say, and you're in business. It ain't rocket science. And anyone who says you're not qualified because you're like them is....probably not qualified to critique your knowledge of politics.

Back to Obama.

On what basis do all of Obama's critics claim he lacks experience? Best as I can tell, the point was that Obama hasn't held federal office long enough. Now that Sarah Palin's on the GOP ticket, Obama's supposed deficit to her in executive experience is the new talking point, and it is true that he has never been mayor of a town of between 6000-9000 people or governor of Alaska.

Got that? Too little federal/executive experience makes Barack Obama unqualified, or maybe just suspect. Why is this true? Perhaps people learn critical things about being president by being mayor, or Senator for a really long time (John Kerry, are you reading this??), or Governor of Alaska (heaven forbid being a Senator from Alaska were critical -- we'd have a Mike Gravel-Ted Stevens cage match for the Oval Office). Without this experience, I guess, no one would be qualified to be President.

If you think these claims are true, or plausible, then it's epistemological quiz time: How do you know that these claims are true, or plausible? Have you ever been a small-town mayor? Or a multi-term Senator? Or Governor of Alaska? If so, you're excused from answering the quiz. But if you lack these critical qualities in a President, how do you know that they are indeed critical? You could say that you know because you know the things you don't know, like my rocket-science example. But then it seems to me you're arguing that you lack the experience necessary to express a worthy opinion on almost every major public policy issue. Don't tell me about what to do about Iraq, or Georgia, or tax policy: if Barack Obama doesn't have the experience to know, then neither do you.

From what I can tell, what it takes to be a good president is a lot less like being a nuclear physicist than it is like being a good analyst of politics and policy. If you get informed about and pay attention to the issues that matter, you're at least in the game. Obviously there's a lot more that matters (here's where I'd talk about judgment if I were going to). But besides judgment and a decent sense for how to thread political needles, if the comparison between the Bush and Clinton administrations has taught us anything, it's that simply being interested in the reality-based aspects of governing is a big part of the job. Whatever you think about Obama, it's been clear (at least) since he entered the Senate that he possesses that quality. What scares me about Sarah Palin is that, so far, there is precious little reason to think she does. And if John McCain can't see that, then what does that say about the value of his own vaunted experience?

If you still think that checking off more years in the Senate, as a mayor of a few thousand people, or Governor of Alaska is a critical part of being qualified -- having the experience -- to be President, fine. But don't tell anyone, because you don't have the experience for that job.

Posted by Jonah Gelbach on September 2, 2008 at 02:50 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Several readers have asked questions about Mr. Obama’s status at the school. Let me clarify . . .When the law school tried to hire Mr. Obama after his failed 2000 congressional race, it was for a tenured job, according to Daniel Fischel, the dean at the time. In our interview, I asked him if he meant “tenure-track,” and he said no. “He would be hired as a tenured professor,” he explained. The faculty would vote, but Mr. Obama already had their support, he added.

Posted by: Bart | Sep 3, 2008 1:31:40 PM

To Shy (no pun intended, particularly in French): I'd meant to include that Obama is the brightest of the candidates, and that matters. Making decisions about war and peace, disaster response, recovery from economic downturns--this all requires some big league analytical skills.

Also, Obama's war opposition was politically courageous. He was running for statewide office at the time, so his political fortunes rested on a much more conservative constituency than his district. It is also fair to say that had he been fantastically wrong about the war, his senatorial and national aspirations would have suffered greatly.

Finally, his thoughtful opposition to the war showed foresight regardless of whether it was politically courageous. Obama correctly identified many of the things that went wrong in Iraq, which is the type of before the fact wisdom I'd like to see in a president on issues of war and peace.

If I'm wrong on the U of C tenure issue I apologize and am willing to stand corrected, but teaching there is still demonstrative of extraordinary intellectual capacity.

Posted by: Charlie Martel | Sep 3, 2008 12:45:15 PM

"He taught at another of the most prestigious schools, the University of Chicago...and was offered tenure."

I thought this was put to rest as not true. Or at least not remembered by any of the tenure-making faculty at U of C. (?)

Posted by: Endless Loop | Sep 3, 2008 10:49:49 AM

"If you believe the Iraq War was a terrible mistake, then you should agree that Sen. Obama showed great foresight in opposing it and in predicting nearly exactly why the war was such a mistake."

Come on! He represented a state senate district where 90% of his constituents opposed the war. If he had represented a district with the opposite perspective, I'd give him credit for both courage and foresight. Instead, I just note that he was "going with the flow."

Posted by: SHY | Sep 2, 2008 11:19:23 PM

"Whether one agrees with Sen. Obama or not, there can be no serious case made that he is not the most talented, accomplished and skilled person among this years candidates, including the remaining candidates for President and Vice President."

"Talented?" Perhaps. "Accomplished?" No way. He's not as "accomplished" as either Biden or McCain. "Skilled?" At what? He's good at making speeches, and playing both dirty politics and inspirational politics. But he has no legislative accomplishments to speak of, and has never held a private sector job where he can show off his skills.

Oddly enough, he is clearly the "brightest" of the lot, but you left that one out.

Posted by: SHY | Sep 2, 2008 11:17:37 PM

I am 49, and I have been playing golf since I was 5, so that is 44 years of golfing experience. Tiger Woods is 31, and he has been playing golf since he was 2, so he has 29 years of golfing experience.
I have 15 years more golfing experience than Tiger Woods.

In fact, if you count it by strokes per 18 holes, I am even more experienced than Tiger, since he only takes 63 to 75 strokes a round while I experience at least 120. He is also narrow in his perspective of the course, since he is almost always in the fairway and on the green. By contrast, I know the woods and the water and the traps, places he rarely goes but where I am quite at home. We need golfers who know the whole course, not just isolated parts of it. Tiger has only an elitist's understanding of what golf and courses really are, which is probably something he picked up at Stanford.

All snarking aside.

Talent, hard work, excellence, judgment and performing at the highest level of one's profession under the most challenging circumstances matter.

Whether one agrees with Sen. Obama or not, there can be no serious case made that he is not the most talented, accomplished and skilled person among this years candidates, including the remaining candidates for President and Vice President.

He attended the most prestigious law school in the nation and was appointed to its most prestigious position. He taught at another of the most prestigious schools, the University of Chicago, in a very sought after subject, Constitutional Law, and was offered tenure. He won elections in fiercely competitive places that are very reflective of the demographics of the nation, Chicago and Illinois. He won those elections at a young age, as a relative outsider in places where long time party affiliation is often decisive, and without great personal financial assets. In fact he had student loans in every election he ran in til this one. He has written two bestselling books, by his own hand, that are not only best sellers, but address complex issues in a nuanced manner, and his writing skills match the best prose writers.

In the Senate, he has been assigned to two committees with direct national security responsibilities--homeland security and foreign relations. He has co-written legislation regulating the spread of weapons of mass destruction with Dick Lugar, one of the most respected Senators on international relations.

In running for President, he has managed a campaign that has raised more money from more donors than any campaign in history. He has led the formation of the largest and most effective ground organization in the history of American politics. Sen. Obama's campaign defeated one of the most popular leaders in the nation, Hillary Clinton, who began the campaign with the advantages of her own popularity, the popularity of her husband, a former President, a 30 point lead, and a network of financial and political support going back at least 20 years. In fact, the Clintons had won all but one of the elections they ran since 1978. It took Senator Obama less than 18 months to put together the organization that lead to his nomination.

In addition, Senator Obama is perhaps the best political communicator of his generation, effective in settings ranging from one-on-one interviews to speeches before hundreds of thousands of people.

There really is no serious doubt that Senator Obama is the brightest and most talented of the candidates this year, and in fact would rank very high among our presidents in terms of intellectual capacity and communication skills.

I will add a note about judgment. If you believe the Iraq War was a terrible mistake, then you should agree that Sen. Obama showed great foresight in opposing it and in predicting nearly exactly why the war was such a mistake. He did this at a time when not many public figures opposed the war. Given that the next President will have to conclude our involvement in the war, and quite likely make similar decisions about war and peace, the fact that Sen. Obama was right about Iraq should be nearly dispositive when it comes to sagacity on international affairs.

There really is no question about who the best qualified person in this election is.

Posted by: Charlie Martel | Sep 2, 2008 10:18:45 PM

I agree. Experience means nothing. I personally wouldn't mind a candidate who's never done *anything.* There's currently a write-in candidate who was raised by wolves; I'm voting for him based on his "judgment" of living a more eco-friendly lifestyle. In fact, the Constitutional requirement that presidents be 35 years old should be striken. It's "silly."

Posted by: Sarcastro | Sep 2, 2008 7:21:10 PM

I think your argument about "if Barack doesn't know x, neither do you" is weak. We elect our public officials because they have a better grasp of these things than we do. It's not unreasonable to demand that.

I agree with the premise, however. David Frum, Bush's former speechwriter has written that attacks on Obama's qualifications are sadly misguided because he has proven his abilities in defeating the wife of a former President backed by the most savvy and formidable organization around...except for Barack Obama's. Michael Kinsley points out what a stupid trap the experience game is:

The whole "experience" debate is silly. Under our system of government, there is only one job that gives you both executive and foreign policy experience, and that's the one McCain and Obama are running for. Nevertheless, it's a hardy perennial: If your opponent is a governor, you accuse him of lacking foreign policy experience. If he or she is a member of Congress, you say this person has never run anything. And if, by chance, your opponent has done both, you say that he or she is a "professional politician." When Republicans aren't complaining about someone's lack of experience, they are calling for term limits.


Joe Scarborough recently predicted that Barack Obama will win the Presidency because of his superior organization. And he will. It should be a rout, but it won't be because of racism. But if you take away 8 points of Barack's otherwise 10 point advantage, you can add back four for organization. McCain was doomed even before demonstrating pure impulsive incompetence and lack of judgment in picking Sarah Palin to go down on the ship with him.

Posted by: Bart | Sep 2, 2008 6:10:58 PM

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