Monday, April 5, 2010

Obama's Frustration (in 2500 words or less)

For the past two years, I have discussed and analyzed my contention that Obama is a textbook example of philosophical pragmatism. If you want an almost perfect example of his mind and epistemology in action, look no further than a response he gave to a simple comment made at a recent event. According to the Washington Post,

Toward the end of a question-and-answer session with workers at an advanced battery technology manufacturer, a woman named Doris stood to ask the president whether it was a "wise decision to add more taxes to us with the health care" package.

"We are over-taxed as it is," Doris said bluntly.

Now, Doris has made a straightforward claim. Either we are over-taxed or we are not. To answer this question, in part, one would have to define or at least have a vague understanding of the proper role of government vis-a-vis the current government which would entail some moral claim on the purpose of government as it relates to the individual. From those premises, one could relatively easily and logically ascertain whether we are indeed "overtaxed."

For example, I think I could give a good answer for a principled socialist. He should answer, "if anything, you are under taxed. After all, your duty is to the common good - to your brothers, and the State. You must sacrifice everything for the benefit of the many. How dare you invoke such an outmoded, selfish, materialistic, bourgeois notion. What about those who have less than even you? From each according to ability, to each according to need..."

Although I would disagree with this philosophy in the strongest possible way, it would at least be a positive claim to some principle or idea. However, to the modern pragmatist, such an approach would be anathema. It would be too "black and white", too "extreme", too "simplistic."

So, how did Obama respond? Quoting the Washington Post:

Obama started out feisty. "Well, let's talk about that, because this is an area where there's been just a whole lot of misinformation, and I'm going to have to work hard over the next several months to clean up a lot of the misapprehensions that people have," the president said.

He then spent the next 17 minutes and 12 seconds lulling the crowd into a daze. His discursive answer - more than 2,500 words long -- wandered from topic to topic, including commentary on the deficit, pay-as-you-go rules passed by Congress, Congressional Budget Office reports on Medicare waste, COBRA coverage, the Recovery Act and Federal Medical Assistance Percentages (he referred to this last item by its inside-the-Beltway name, "F-Map"). He talked about the notion of eliminating foreign aid (not worth it, he said). He invoked Warren Buffett, earmarks and the payroll tax that funds Medicare (referring to it, in fluent Washington lingo, as "FICA").

Note the approach here. First, he expresses concern and frustration that he will need months to explain all of this. Why? Obama is unable to generalize. He can only offer a rambling litany of disconnected concretes. He is not concerned with the broader question of how this plan violates the principle of individual rights, how it violates the letter and spirit of the Constitution, nor how fundamental principles of economics could demonstrate its impracticality and destructiveness. He is not concerned with morality or cause and effect. Evidently, his mind is only filled with F-maps and CBO reports on Medicare waste.

No wonder he is frustrated. But his frustration is not moral or even political. It is epistemological. His mind, like the mind of most modern intellectuals, is wrecked. Without the ability to validly induce general concepts from observation, i.e., without the ability to reason, a man is reduced to the level of an animal. Such an approach would be like attempting to file papers without any categories.

Second, why does he advocate for anything much less socialism? As noted in previous posts, the pragmatist obtains his ideas from others, through a form of "cultural osmosis." Obama absorbs his default ideology of altruism and egalitarianism from the culture and from teachers and colleagues. He does not seek to convince Americans of the morality of altruism or the economic viability of socialism. In his mind, that is a given. His mandate is simply a matter of "getting things done" or "making it work."

Another consequence of pragmatism can be seen by observing how Obama is perceived by the media or his supporters (same thing). These people, equally disarmed by pragmatism, are unable to evaluate the plan with respect to any general principles such as the nature of rights or economic theory (see this list including video of Rep. Hare dismissing the Constitution). Consequently, they only care that Obama seems to "know what he is talking about" since he can recite minutia from the 2,700 page bill. It seems to them that he is indeed acting to "get things done" in a direction that leads towards egalitariaism and the throttling of evil profiteers.

On the other hand, says the leftist pragmatist, these pesky tea party "extremists" and other right-wing lunatics are standing in the way of progress! How could they want to stop progress?! You see, in their mind, there can be no valid reason why anyone would resist, so they must be, at best, victims of "misinformation" which Obama endeavors to rectify. However, if you still resist, even after being re-educated (not cognitively persuaded but emotionally overwhelmed) by the Dear Leader, well, there is just no hope for you. According to the left, you must be an extreme, anti-reform ideologue who engages in divisive rhetoric rather than working in a bi-partisan fashion to get things done. (In fact, such "hateful" discourse may require a "nudge" from a "choice architect" in order to realize the common goal of the "ideal citizen.")

Frustrating indeed.


Henrik Sundholm said...

A great post. Just wish to say that I have followed your blog for some time, and that it's one of best out there!

Doug Reich said...


Thanks for such a great compliment! Glad you find the blog useful.



Justin said...

Great post and interesting analysis.

Doug Reich said...

Thanks Justin!

Kevin Delaney said...

An outstanding article! Thank you for the insights.

Doug Reich said...


Thank you - glad you enjoyed it!