Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Personality is Destiny

I am going to start this post by praising Keith Olbermann, a beginning I find so shocking that I had to compensate by including the goofy picture at left. As pointed out in this WSJ article and elsewhere, Olbermann (and other liberals) have been extremely critical of Obama's handling of the Gulf oil spill, and of his Oval Office speech on the topic in particular. What I find so worthy about this is that many liberals are expressing discontent without regard for what it might do to their side's political fortunes. In contrast, conservatives generally held fire on George W. Bush until his second term in office, figuring he had to be better than John Kerry. It is, I think, good for the country when people, regardless of ideology, say what they honestly feel about political decisions, rather than playing the us-versus-them game. It helps us find common ground, even if that common ground is on the other side of the river from the President.

That said, many conservatives hear the complaints liberals have just started making about Obama and respond, "Oh, you're just noticing that now?" For them, Obama's flaws have been evident from early on: he's aloof, he has no experience running anything, he is over-dependant on experts. All of which I would argue is true to some extent, if often overstated.

Perhaps the issue is not what Obama does but, quite simply, who he is. And what he is, at his core, is a man who values success as a goal in and of itself, without caring to much about the wielding of power he achieves. The presidency was just a mountain to climb, and now that he's achieved the summit, he doesn't know what to do next. A Spengler essay from 2009 put it well:

I have never met the man, but I have interviewed a fair sampling of his supporters, and conclude that Obama learned the power to cloud men's minds, like the Shadow on the old radio show. Apart from ambition, there is no "there" there. There are as many Obamas as there are interlocutors.

Was this really so surprising? At one point, he cited his ability to run a presidential campaign as proof of executive experience. People have pointed out how laughable this is on its face, but I have not heard many say how frightening it is that he would equate the task of promoting himself with the task of running the most powerful nation on Earth.

Rather than continue to pile on an already beleaguered politician, though, I'd like to point out that a relatively basic analysis of a candidate's personality seems a much better predictor of their performance as President than their policy positions. Moving past Obama, George W. Bush seemed obviously cocksure, privileged and unreflective even on the campaign trail. Shouldn't we have anticipated he would not adjust well to changing circumstances, that he would retreat, sulking, into a protective bubble rather than spar with a hostile media? (I rather liked the man, all things considered, but I don't think even his most steadfast supporters could deny those two crippling flaws.)

Going back one more, wasn't Bill Clinton a textbook case of a man who would rather be popular than be right? Perhaps a bit narcissistic? I'd argue those traits explain everything from his sexual dalliances to his political strategy of triangulation. His desire to do big, important things like reform healthcare could not compete with the fundamental yearning to be loved and validated by as many people as possible.

One last point, if I may, because I anticipate an objection: If Obama, as I suggest, values personal achievement more than governing, then why did he push so hard for and ultimately get his healthcare bill passed? I would argue that it has little to do with his belief that the policy was best for the country (in the past, he advocated single payer, but abandoned that approach once he announced his candidacy). Rather, he wanted to do something that many Democratic presidents and politicians before him had tried and failed to do, something that would make him better than them. Obama was willing to take a hit to his approval ratings because he wanted to succeed where others has failed.

Why do we as a country continue to vote for candidates with massive (and fairly glaring) personality flaws? I believe it is the nature of our political system. In the primaries, the discontented stalwarts of the opposition party look for a candidate that seems the exact opposite of what they hate in the current president. They overlook (or even embrace) the flaws of this opposing personality, because he seems like a corrective to the despised enemy. In the general election, those flaws are muted, and the independent voter generally embraces someone new and different. It is only in the (increasingly rare) cases where a president finishes two terms with their popularity intact (like Reagan) that this dynamic is less pronounced.

If the model holds, we will in two or six years elect a leader whose personality is diametrically opposed to Obama's. And then feel a pang of regret when we realize we've made the same mistakee all over again.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On Being First

I am reading World Without End, sequel to Pillars of the Earth: both books are about medieval England, and the assortment of craftsman, priests, nobles and visionaries that either impede or advance the efforts to build, respectively, a bridge and a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge. Along the way, the characters kill, make love, go on journeys, try to ruin each other, and do all the other things characters do to fill out two 800+ page popular novels.

But what really interests me is the way the author, Ken Follett, captures the nature of how progress is made. Both books are driven by characters who solve seemingly intractable problems through intellect and force of will, doing things no one else in their community could have imagined.

But the interesting thing is that many of the solutions they come up with seem, to the modern reader, clever but not particularly ingenious. One example: in World Without End, the main character builds the foundation of a bridge by driving stakes around the area where the pillars will go, then filling the gaps between rows of stakes with clay to block the water. Clever? Absolutely. But not revolutionary, at least not to modern minds, even though few if any of Follett's readers have done anything similar.

What you realize upon relfection is that it doesn't seem so revolutionary because you know similar things are done all the time. You might have to reason out how to do it, but you know it can be done. It is much harder to ask yourself, about something that has never been imagined before (at least, as far as you know), "Can this be done?" Follett's characters win us over because they are always asking that question, and overcoming the obstacles in between them and their goals.

Being first to do anything is hard, especially in hard times like these when the easiest thing to do is play it safe and wait for things to improve. But human progress is the accumulation of knowledge gained as people try something first, and then a lot of other people applying that hard-earned knowledge to their situations. In any walk of life, there is the possibility to try the untried, and perhaps to prosper by doing something totally new.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Declining Opportunities for "Earned Success"?

I am quite intrigued by Arthur Brooks' arguments about "earned success", which I have seen in several places but which are summarized nicely here. To briefly summarize, Brooks suggests that it is not ultimately income that correlates with happiness, but the feeling that our success (which yes, is often reflected in earnings) is the result of our drive, and that we have contributed in some way to improving humanity's condition. Whether that is by solving a scientific problem, making something useful for someone else, or creating beauty doesn't matter.

I agree with the notion, but I find it mildly depressing, because I believe that the future will offer fewer professional opportunities for earned success. Most of the people I know (and admittedly, New Yorkers and other northeast urbanites/suburbanites are an unrepresentative sample) do not feel their jobs are contributing towards anything bigger, at least not in any way they can observe.

And the future seems likely to create more of the same. Most of the jobs created in the western world are based on various types of information manipulation: packaging facts and ideas for consumption. It may be lucrative, it may even be challenging, but it quite often feels detached and utterly meaningless to the people in these positions. Our corporations, our systems of production and distribution, are so large that few people really have a view of how their contribution fits in. In other words, they feel they are part of a machine and not in control of their own success. This is even happening in healthcare, where doctors and nurses frequently complain that they spend much more time doing administrative tasks and less tending to patients.

This is not cause for despair, exactly. There will always be jobs in research, in the arts, and in engineering that offer what corporate positions increasingly do not: a sense that your effort makes an impact. And for the rest of us, we may have to find earned success in our families or our avocations as we are denied it in the working world.