Felix Salmon Makes a Key Observation

Barack Obama and the limitations of probabilistic decision making | Felix Salmon

For Obama, if a decision doesn’t work out, he’s OK with that, since he reckons there’s a statistical certainty that a good third of his decisions will fail to work out. And he takes solace in the idea that so long as the process of arriving at the decision was a good one, by which he means that it was properly technocratic and probabilistic, then he did the best that he could have done.

But that kind of decision-making framework leaves very little room for ideals — for actually putting into practice the kind of vision you have for America. By making decisions on a case-by-case basis, you can end up missing out on building something bigger and much more coherent. In 2008, America voted for a man who was truly excellent at staring into the distance, a man looking at the big picture, and at a centuries-long legacy. Instead, hampered by the financial crisis and by a dysfunctional Congress, they got a man who spends his days weighing success probabilities: a tactician, rather than a strategist.

Barack Obama and the limitations of probabilistic decision making | Felix Salmon

“Little room for ideals:” Exactly, the President lacks the desire to fight on moral or ethical grounds but governs based on some kind of intellectual calculus, a bloodless exercise in which losses are measured in much the same way as a  a lost chess game.

Mr. Salmon hit on something I have long suspected, and I very much wish both he and I were wrong but we are not. The President lives in a world devoid of ethical calculus. He lives by the probability of the possible. We voted for a new direction for American democracy, a different vision, but we got a President who cannot envision a different reality – only manipulate the current one.

James Pilant

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