16 May 2013

Scandals, Policy, and Fast & Slow Thinking (About that IRS Scandal)

Daniel Kahneman begins his book Thinking Fast and Slow with a picture and an equation.

In an instant, 90% of people know that this girl is mad. 

By contrast, 90% of people take at least a few seconds to calculate the answer to this equation.

37 X 4.

Some things we can do so quickly and effortlessly that we don't even think that we're thinking. Other tasks make us very aware that we're thinking.

The media - and by extension the political dialogue - is defined by the fact that we can instantly judge scandals but it takes time and effort to judge policy. (Not that we always resort to actual judgment for policy; once we know whether a particular proposal is considered liberal or conservative, we can judge it as quickly as we can this little girl's mood.)

The federal government has nearly 3 million civilian employees. When they do something wrong, the question is whether it actually stems from policy or - even better for the media - conspiracy. If they were just acting on their own - mavericks in the system - it may qualify as a scandal but it is no indictment of the White House. (Unless, of course, you have mavericks in the White House like McCain and Palin who would, presumably, encourage maverick behavior.) 

Abu Ghraib and My Lai were atrocious but don't seem to have been the result of either White House conspiracy or policy; neither Bush nor LBJ were ever indicted in these awful acts and it would be unfair to judge them by those events.

By contrast, it really is fair to judge LBJ and Bush by the wars (occupations?) of Vietnam and Iraq. Those are the result of policy, choices that emanated from the White House. It's harder to judge whether those were good decisions. My Lai and Abu Ghraib? We can all confidently criticize those as wrong.

Conspiracies never make as much difference as policies. Abu Ghraib and My Lai did not kill as many people or cost as much money as the Iraq and Vietnam wars, did not have as much impact on the region. 

Yet policy is boring. It requires slow thinking, the same plodding thought that solves equations. Scandals, on the other hand, are exciting. It lets us rely on fast thinking, letting us judge them almost instantly. They make us feel smart because they are easy to think about. 

Scandals rarely matter. Policy almost always does. And yet savvy media and politicians will continue to feed us scandals and largely ignore policy. Not because that's a smart thing to do when it comes to running a country. Instead, they do it because it makes us - and them - feel smart.

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