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March 21, 2004 - The Limitations of Empiricism in Politics

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Do you want to be outraged?  No?

Try this little investigation of how the need of those in power to maintain their power trumps this empiricism business.



Timothy Noah is always a fun read. 

And this week he gives us this.  He’s getting on George Bush’s case, in a magazine that has pretty much become the Anyone-But-Kerry voice on the left.  Led by their staff writer Mickey Kaus they may eventually come out for Ralph Nader or Lyndon Larouche or whoever isn’t John Kerry, but they can still publish a cool critique of the president. 

See Information Is Treason: Why Bush is worse than Reagan
Timothy Noah.  SLATE.COM, Posted Tuesday, March 16, 2004, at 4:51 PM PT

Basically, Noah here wants to illustrate Bush's "unique contribution to the war against empiricism, which continues to escalate."

Well, silly me, I’ve always been kind of fond of empiricism.  That only means I’m living in the wrong century. 

Here’s the opening:


"Facts are stupid things," President Ronald Reagan said in a famous self-parodying moment.  (He'd meant to say "facts are stubborn things.")  At the time, a common criticism of the Reagan presidency was that the Gipper tended to ignore facts and act instead according to the dictates of ideology.  Since then, sentimental revisionists have come to praise Reagan for paying facts little heed. 

Although it flatters President George W. Bush to suggest he possesses anything so grand as an ideology, Dubya emulates the Reagan technique.  But he's advanced it one bold step further. 

Rather than simply ignore information, Bush and his minions have resolved to suppress it or, better yet, to prevent it from being created in the first place.


Well, that’s not nice at all. 

But Noah gives three examples. 

Noah notes that in the January/February issue of the Atlantic, James Fallows reported that in May 2002 the Central Intelligence Agency began a series of war games aimed at predicting conditions in Iraq after the ousting of Saddam Hussein.  This was, in light of the chaos that later descended on Iraq after the United States victory, perhaps a very wise thing to do. 

Noah quotes Fallows –


[O]ne recurring theme in the exercises was the risk of civil disorder after the fall of Baghdad….  The CIA… considered whether a new Iraqi government could be put together through a process like the Bonn conference, which was then being used to devise a post-Taliban regime for Afghanistan.  At the Bonn conference representatives of rival political and ethic groups agreed on the terms that established Hamid Karzai as the new Afghan President.  The CIA believed that rivalries in Iraq were so deep, and the political culture so shallow, that a similarly quick transfer of sovereignty would only invite chaos.


Yeah, well, that was on the money. 

But Noah points out the Pentagon thought this analysis was all wet, and quotes Fallows:


Representatives from the Defense Department were among those who participated in the first of these CIA war-game sessions.  When their Pentagon superiors at the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) found out about this, in early summer, the representatives were reprimanded and told not to participate further.  "OSD" is Washington shorthand, used frequently in discussions about the origins of Iraq war plans, and it usually refers to strong guidance from [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld, [Deputy Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz, [Defense Undersecretary for Policy Douglas] Feith, and one of Feith's deputies, William Luti.  Their displeasure over the CIA exercise was an early illustration of a view that became stronger throughout 2002: that postwar planning was an impediment to war. 

Because detailed thought about the postwar situation meant facing costs and potential problems, and thus weakened the case for launching a "war of choice" (the Washington term for a war not waged in immediate self-defense), it could be seen as an "antiwar" undertaking. 


Yep, these guys with their study didn’t have the right attitude. 

Noah asserts that in the Reagan era, Defense Department employees would likely have been permitted to participate in such an exercise; if what they learned from it displeased Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, he would have simply ignored it.  But Noah asserts that in the Bush administration Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon "boldly declared it unpatriotic merely to know how the war games turned out."

As a few readers know, my former father-in-law was one of the assistant secretaries of defense in the Reagan administration.  I visited with him at the Pentagon.  I didn’t sense then such an ideological fervor to always be wary of folks with odd views – folks who might be right in some way that made everyone uncomfortable.  Heck, they let even me in the door.  And they chatted with me.  It was a looser time.  This current crew would have me still standing in the parking lot. 

Okay fine.  Another example? 

Noah goes over the story that Knight-Ridder broke a few days ago – the Medicare business.  As you recall, Knight-Ridder (Tony Pugh) reported that Medicare's chief actuary, Richard Foster, was ordered last June by Medicare administrator Tom Scully not to share with members of Congress his estimate that the then-pending Medicare drug bill would cost $156 billion more than they'd been led to believe.  (After Congress passed the bill, the White House budget office revised its formal estimate by $139 billion.)  According to Foster, Scully threatened to fire him if he showed his cost estimate to anyone in Congress.  Foster considered resigning in protest. 

In short, this bill was not going to pass if some traditionally "small-government Republicans" found out the real cost.  They’d be pissed.  So?  Don’t tell them.  If you try to tell them?  You’d lose your job.  The Noah article has much more detail, but that’s the basic idea. 

And of this whole lie-to-your-own-party business Noah has this to say:


1.) The political hack in question blocked information output, not input.  Prohibiting output is worse than prohibiting input because when you prohibit input there's at least the hope that a third party (say, the CIA) will make use of the shunned information.  When you prohibit output, nobody gets the information.  According to White House spokesman Scott McClellan, not even President Bush had a clue that his Medicare bill cost in excess of $100 billion more than he'd thought until long after he signed it into law. 

2.) The penalty for disobedience was not reprimand, but firing, which is self-evidently worse.


Well, these guy play hardball.  And they were backing the president.  And they did, after all, get the bill passed. 

Ha, ha. 

Noah’s last example is the something that was covered in the Los Angeles Times this week.  Heck, I was just sipping coffee and scratching Harriet-the-Cat behind her ears one morning when it caught my eye.  Tom Hamburger and Alan C. Miller explained that Environmental Protection Agency staffers were told not to perform routine scientific and economic analysis for a proposed regulation governing mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants. 


According to "EPA veterans" consulted by Hamburger and Miller, this is "unprecedented for a major rulemaking."  And they ran down Russell Train, a Republican who headed the EPA during the Nixon and Ford presidencies, who called it "outrageous."

Yeah, yeah.  And it seems that because this was so blatantly pro-industry there was a big noise about it all.  The EPA administrator, Michael Leavitt, is now calling for additional study – well, he’s calling for the analysis that should have been done before the rule was proposed.  Oops. 

Curiously this executive order that called for bypassing the basic science stuff came down when Christine Todd Whitman was running the EPA – and she says she didn’t know about it, and that had she known, she’d have stopped such nonsense.  Yeah, right.  Well, she’s gone. 

Who is responsible?  The Times guys say the instruction not to perform scientific and economic analysis came from William Wehrum, a high-ranking aide to Jeffrey R. Holmstead, the EPA's Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation.  And Noah adds this:


Holmstead was present when Wehrum rendered his pronouncement, and remained silent while EPA staffers objected.  This resolute stance may owe something to the fact that Holmstead and Wehrum, before coming to the EPA, were attorneys at the law firm Latham & Watkins, where Holmstead represented a utility group called the Alliance for Constructive Air Policy.  As it happens, several paragraphs in the proposed rule were lifted word-for-word from a memo prepared by Latham & Watkins. 


Ah yes, Latham & Watkins.  I’ve dealt with them too.  But that’s another story, involving data my systems guys providing them with information when I worked at Hughes Electronics - so they could defend that aerospace firm against lawsuits from angry former employees.  None of this is surprising. 

Anyway, Noah says this "EPA End Run carries the logic of the Medicare Lockdown one exquisite step further."  The idea is that rather than prevent the dissemination of information, Holmstead and Wehrum took care that no such information be generated in the first place. 

You see that pattern here? 

Someone studies something and the conclusion suggests your war may be whole lot more expensive and messy than you’d like?  You don’t want to know.  It would be unpatriotic to know such things, or at least it would be so negative to think that way.  A positive attitude works wonders?  Maybe. 

Someone has financial facts that would mean you’d lose the vote because the damned Medicare bill is too expensive?  Let that someone know if any member of congress asks him for the numbers, and he tells them the truth, he’ll get fired. 

The proposed regulation of something toxic might cost your political contributors a bundle?  Make sure the science isn’t done – forbid any studies on the matter. 

Facts?  Who needs them?  Ignore them as “defeatist.”  Or make sure they never get out.  Or make sure they’re never developed at all. 

As I said, I’ve always been kind of fond of empiricism.  I am living in the wrong century. 

But Noah may be wrong regarding Bush and his crew. 

Any organization with any power does such things.  Vote Bush and this crew out?  Kerry might do the same, or Ralph Nader, or Lyndon Larouche.  To think otherwise is to be nave.  The need of those in power to maintain their power trumps this empiricism business.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
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