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January 20, 2009


I'll say Obama will be great if:

1) He murders fewer foreigners than past presidents. Clinton's policies led to a lot of Iraqi deaths, but Bush killed far more.

2) He spends less money on war and more on domestic matters. Yes most of the latter is probably a questionable or wasteful investment, but it can't be as destructive as war. Political incentives being what they are, we can't expect the president to be able to actually reduce spending.

3) He restores some of America's reputation with the rest of the world, making future conflicts (e.g., Iran) less likely. Being a black democrat might be enough here.

4) He expands free trade and removes sanctions.

5) His interventions into the economy are more symbolic than anything else. While its likely political processes can enact rules to prevent this housing crises from repeating itself in a similar manner, its less likely they can do so with future, unknown crises, and I think even less likely that such a crisis would repeat itself in the absence of any changes.

Admittedly this sets the "great" bar pretty low.

You'll soon wish Bush was back.

It's just unhealthy how you are excited by someone, who has never showed you a birth certificate.

A stampeedo, quite sad to observe.

In the spirit of equality, I'm holding him to the same standard as I would crusty old white guys. All this inane media hype has left me feeling somewhat indifferent, although the one thing I know for sure about him is that he can speak in public which given the past few presidents seems like quite an accomplishment.

As far as specific things, a balanced budget would be nice, since this country seems to have forgotten that accumulating debt indefinitely is not how government is supposed to work.

"For most any president today, odds are that we'd: be mostly out of our moderately deep recession in four years..."

Robin apparently believes there are a set of presidential actions or non-actions that would probably lead to mostly exiting the recession within four years. What are they?

Avoid engaging in any significant wars. I see plenty of uncertainty about Afghanistan.

egl: Robin probably believes that presidential actions don't correlate with business cycles very well at all, so neither action nor non-action will "lead" the economy compared to other factors out of the government's control.

Or, in other words, very few recessions in the U.S. last longer than 5 years. The average length is much shorter.

"be mostly out of our moderately deep recession in four years,"

Count me as confused about this remark. What is the extent of control a president has over the economy? It might not be nothing, but it certainly is something less than the determinism implied by Hanson here. (I say it is implied because he lists this among many other items the president does in fact have direct influence over.)

I think his point is that regardless of what a new president would do, only the most horrible would still leave us in a recession in 4 years. You can easily be skeptical of a president's ability to get us out of our recession faster while firmly believing in the president's ability to make the recession worse.

There's a notable lack of actual bar-setting in this thread. So here's a bar:

* reduce the cost of healthcare on a per capita basis to the point where the U.S. no longer an outlier among OECD countries (health outcomes in the U.S. also have to not be negative outliers among OECD countries)

Do that, and you get to be called a "great" president, regardless of race, creed, or gender. Obama's chances? I think it'll be a priority of his administration; conditional on this being true, I'd put the chances as 15-25%.


Dow -178.73
down -2.16%

Nasdaq -51.92

S&P -25.15
down -2.96%

10-Yr Note 111.28
down -1.00

FTSE 100 4091.40
down -17.07

Dax 4239.85
down -76.29

I'm withdrawing my "notable lack" remark... 2.5 out of 8 comments (Peter McClusky, Michael, only half credit for Grant because he undermined his own list) before mine isn't a great proportion, but it's not zero.

(I say it is implied because he lists this among many other items the president does in fact have direct influence over.)

It seems to me the relevant commonality, implied by the subject of the post, is that they are things presidents tend to be judged for, rather than necessarily have influence over.

Frelkins: what is the starting and ending point for those changes?

Grant and Peter, since Obama will likely stay in Iraq, he will likely war and kill more than most, but less than Bush. Is that great or not?

egl and others, I gave a list of the sort of things people might judge a president by; I wasn't saying how responsible presidents are for such things.

Cyan, I'll put my $1000 against your $50 that Obama will not achieve that result within ten years.

If Obama is just another average president like Clinton, this is going to be a tremendous improvement over Bush, and that's what people are so enthusiastic about. That's not absolute great, but great relative to the Worst President Ever.

I don't know much about American health care (other than that it sucks), but those seem like really good odds to me and I'd happily take the bet if I had the patience and trust-level to make a 10-year bet.

Robin, I don't think that is great. It might not be below average (since presidents rarely seem to undo what their predecessors did, and I don't think its all that clear that pulling out of Iraq would be the best thing for the Iraqis, even if going in was a terrible mistake), but I think we should be looking for more in a "great" president.

Cyan, how did I undermine my own list? I do agree that health care is very important. In summary, my opinion is:
-Less war, now and in the future.
-More trade and fewer sanctions.
-Cheaper health care.
-Continued advancement of alternative energy (which may require him to veto corn subsidies and other bogus solutions).
-An increase in standard of living for all classes by the end of his first term (which should be very doable, despite the recession).

I would think that Obama's charisma and his party's control of congress will mean he will be able to exert more influence of legislative procedure. If he cannot, then we might have to settle for less war and better foreign relations, two things presidents have direct control over.


"Wall Street Hits Session Lows After Obama's Speech

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stock indexes extended losses and hit session lows on Tuesday after President Barack Obama's inauguration speech provided few new details about measures to tackle the economic crisis."

-- Filed at 12:52 p.m. ET

Cyan, how did I undermine my own list?

You wrote, "Admittedly this sets the 'great' bar pretty low."

I'd meant "great" relative to all presidents, which I think is a pretty low bar. Even lower would be "great" relative to Bush.

# go deeper in debt "stimulating" and "bailing" because politicians love to spend,
# do little on carbon emissions or the coming Medicare train wreck as those are very expensive, and

Well, which is it?

Frelkins, most of the fall seems to have occurred before Obama's speech. Hence it seems that Obama's speech did not in fact cause the fall unless there was foreknowledge of the speech among traders.

Since (I presume) few expected Obama to get cold feet at inauguration and decide not to be president, the fact of Obama's inauguration should have already been reflected in pre-existing prices - only new information should change the price.

My "if he does at least this much, it's worth it" (or more to the point, the whole administration) is "stop screwing/insulting/altering scientific results for political reasons"

Quit shredding the constitution. That is, undo some of the damage, strengthen the protections against abuse of power, not just vague symbolic mutterings, but seriously restore the importance of constitutional rules, rather than playing "signing statements"/"unitary executive"/etc games.

Stop playing "oh, geneva convention doesn't count when we do it" games, and so on. (including, not just vague comments about definitions of torture, but really meaningfully putting an end to that mess)

I don't know whether he'll actually do these things, but this is the standard I'm setting. I hope it's vastly exceeded, but I don't expect that. I don't really even know how strong a confidence I should put in what I want above being fulfilled (again, not in a "word games" way, but for real), but that's at least the starting point that I'm hoping for.

I will consider him a great success if he and congress end the war on drugs. Short of that I will ok with him if he does like Carter did and just does not enforce the drug laws much.

Robin, I agree with your predictions but we should get much more specific if we are going to evaluate them well later. As you would be the first to point out, few of us have incentives to make public specific unbiased predictions.

If Obama surprises us with some achievements, it is very likely that much of the credit will belong to exogenous components of the political environment, rather than Obama's abilities and efforts. We should compare what happens under Obama to what we think would have happened with different leaders e.g. a) McCain, b) random Democratic presidential hopeful, c) random Republican presidential hopeful, d) Robin Hanson, etc.

I'm curious how good/bad Robin feels Bush was. Are some achievements of the Bush administration under-appreciated?

@ShardPhoenix Health outcomes in the USA and among OECD countries have very little to do with healthcare. There is no evidence that USA healthcare sucks any worse than in the other OECD countries. Just remember that most healthcare has little to do with health.


I think that Cyan will not take the bet because Robin’s side of the bet is so much better.

Are you willing to bet on that, Floccina?

The President's effectiveness depends entirely on his appointments. Bush appointed a lot of incompetent people, leading to Katrina (head of FEMA), the Iraq invasion (head of the CIA), and economic collapse (Secretary of the Treasury). Obama seems to be going to great lengths to get the best people he can for top posts, and all the hype and enthusiasm gives him a broad selection to choose from. He's also made a point of expressing his appreciation for subtlety and openness to new ideas, so I think he'll do quite well.

"be mostly out of our moderately deep recession in four years"

Moderately deep recession? I think you have a talent for understatement.

Robin, what is your opinion of Paul Krugman's writings? He's been screaming on his blog and his op-ed colums that we're headed for a Japan-style liquidity trap, and only fiscal policy can avert deflation and something that looks a lot like a second Great Depression.

Quite simply, comparisons between Obama and FDR are apt, as they both are inheriting a complete and utter mess. Obama just happens to be entering office in 1930 rather than 1932. If all we get is a "moderately bad recession" which ends in four years, then we can consider ourselves lucky. My concern is that Obama is going to end up being a second Jimmy Carter and not a second FDR.

My personal "bar" for Obama looks like this:

1) Prevent a second Great Depression
(See above.)
2) Restore transparency and accountability to the federal government
(Bush increased government secrecy to levels exceeding those during the height of Cold War paranoia and pushed executive power to levels that even Richard "If the President does it, it is not illegal" Nixon never claimed.)
3) Get our civil service and regulatory apparatus functioning again
(I strongly disagree that "governments are just bad at" managing situations like Hurricane Katrina. "Governments" are not bad at it; corrupt governments that appoint unqualified people to important positions on the basis of party loyalty are bad at it. I believe that if Katrina hit under Clinton, it would not have been nearly as horribly mismanaged. Incidentally, the Clinton administration was the least corrupt administration in history, with a grand total of zero indictments related to official duties despite being the target of a partisan witch hunt!)
4) Restore America's moral standing and its reputation with the rest of the world
5) Not fuck up.

It's pretty irrelevant as to where I set Obama's bar. There is little that he can do to make me happy with his performance. He shouldn't even try.

I think the general public will think Obama successful if there isn't another terrorist attack on this country, if there isn't another Category 5 hurricane making landfall, and if the economy recovers.

If those three things happen, he will get re-elected in a landslide.

The three things have one thing in common: they're a function of luck, nothing more.

If Bush truly is the Worst. President. Ever. it is simply because he was the unluckiest president ever. Clinton was the luckiest president ever, by far.

So.. Barry. Are you feeling lucky?

As far as fixing the economy is concerned, government (and the President) have little ability to influence the recovery of the economy but can have a tremendous negative impact the economy. The free market is a self-correcting mechanism and government meddling will cause it to take a turn for the worse. Lest we forget, the government, through implementing liberal social experiments, caused the current financial crisis in the first place.

Robin -- this seems like a mostly futile exercise. When Bush was inaugurated, no one dreamed of 9/11. After Bush's second election, no one thought he would be judged a failure due to his response to a natural disaster. When this election campaign started no one thought we'd be talking about nationalizing the banking system. The country does seem to be in an acute crisis that is hard to foresee what are the important metrics to measure Obama's success by now.

Although its good to have something to measure -- I just don't think we can figure out what will be important to measure right now as it seems like absolutely no one has been right in the past at defining those measures in the past.

I don't care much (if at all) about an officeholder's personal characteristics -- black/white, Democrat/Republican or so forth. But I do care about officeholders adopting policies that have been successful in past applications instead of policies that have failed repeatedly. My expectations for Mr. Obama are that he will do quite poorly, because the "progressivism" he espouses I view as necessarily destructive. So I will be pleasantly surprised, and I will see Mr. Obama as having met "the bar" as being a "good" president, if the per capita statistics across the board in our country are about the same in 4 years as those he inherited from Mr. Bush -- colloquially speaking, if Mr. Obama doesn't screw things up worse than Mr. Bush left them screwed up.

Obama is more of the same keynesian policies and worldview that has been slowly destroying america since FDR.

I'm finishing up my economics degree at a good U.S. university. I respect what you're trying to do here, Robin. But when I see thinking like:

> "mismanage another Katrina because governments are just bad at that,"

I cringe. This blog is about thinking precisely. Do you really think it's justified to lump every possible (extant or not) government into one word, and then treat them as all one entity?

I am learning to respect those who subscribe to the Libertarian capitalist ideal, but one of my major points of annoyance is knee-jerk antagonism towards any sort of society-wide cooperative decision-making.

rw wrote: "Do you really think it's justified to lump every possible (extant or not) government into one word, and then treat them as all one entity?"

These where almost exactly my thoughts when I read Robin Hanson's comment on government and Katrina.

My probability was conditional, and I'm only willing to make the bet given that the conditioning event occurs, to wit, that healthcare is a priority of the Obama administration. It seems easy to state in hindsight what a given administration has prioritized, but I don't know of any objective measures that could be used to set a well-defined bet. Any suggestions, OB commentariat?

I dispute the queer civil rights thing is cheap or symbolic - Obama has given a lot of promises there, and he'll find them terribly hard to fulfill. The religious nutters have dug in around that as their last stand. If he manages to pass federal civil unions, I would be awfully surprised.

My low bar for him is in his own inauguration speech. He said the government programs that don't work will end. I'll be watching to see if he has the stomach to wade into that fight and win. No cuts, or symbolic trimming at the edges, and I'll mark him down as a failure.

As is typical for threads that touch politics, this quickly degenerated. The ostensible question was mostly used as a jumping-off point for purely political statements.

Really hard to say. A lot of it does seem to be luck. Would Gore or Kerry have done much better or differently than Bush with the same circumstances?

Would they have just happened to have had all the specific insights and knowledge of pitfalls we've only gained through fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, dealing with Katrina, the financial collapse, so on and so forth.

Perhaps during 8 years of Gore, we aren't bogged down in Iraq. But we have undergone a series of smaller than 9/11 scale terrorist attacks, to which our only international response has been UN resolutions. Katrina happened but was handled and mitigated efficiently. We are better off in some ways, but instead of Obama we are now electing McCain or Giuliani as the public begs for unilateral and direct military action. Or maybe we elect Obama but his platform of change is now about changing the 'failed' policy of UN-style diplomacy?

"I am learning to respect those who subscribe to the Libertarian capitalist ideal, but one of my major points of annoyance is knee-jerk antagonism towards any sort of society-wide cooperative decision-making."

The point is that governments are emphatically not an example of "society-wide cooperative decision-making"; while free-markets emphatically are. Free-market capitalism allow every single person to constantly give input to the complex adaptive system. Governments limit cooperative decision making and stifle freedom, always.

Tom, how sure are you that it degenerated rather than starting off degenerate? That is: what are your grounds for thinking that Robin asked the question he did in order to explore questions about bias and prediction and so forth, rather than to push a particular political viewpoint?

Robin himself would be the first to say that you can't assume that the purpose of someone's utterances is what it appears to be on the surface. And, in Bayesian terms, it seems to me that the hypothesis "Robin's politics-related posts on OB are to a large extent intended as propaganda for a libertarian-Republican position" does a good job of explaining otherwise puzzling regularities in those posts, which is evidence in favour of that hypothesis.

Of course it's not the only way of explaining those regularities, and I don't claim to know that the hypothesis is correct. I've not yet seen anything to justify giving it a lower probability than its negation, though.

Anyway. Contra Robin, I predict that in the next four years Obama will

1. appreciably relax "homeland security";
2. more than "mildly" pull out of Iraq (incidental note: Obama has been advocating getting out of Iraq since before any sane person could claim that US operations there were going well, so it doesn't seem credible to claim to me that if he reduces the US presence there it's because they are going well);

I think he will attempt to reform healthcare by at least about as much as the previous Clinton attempt (which was indeed, yes, "unusually big", so by saying Obama is unlikely to do more Robin is saying rather little). If he succeeds in bringing about a large reduction in the fraction of the US population that lacks decent healthcare provision for anything other than immediate emergencies, or in the per capita cost of US healthcare, then that will do much to qualify him as a "good" president for me. (I am aware that Robin holds general views on medicine that would likely make him less enthusiastic about such a change.)

I hope he will substantially reduce the US's military misbehaviour: insane invasions, detaining people indefinitely without trial, torture. If he gets (say) at least 95% of the people currently detained at Guantanamo Bay either tried or released, and reduces the US military presence in Iraq by (say) at least 80%, and gives credible grounds for believing that the US is no longer torturing prisoners or having other countries torture on its behalf, that will go a long way towards making him a "good" president. I think it is likely that he will do those things.

I hope he will find ways to improve the standard of living of (say) the worst-off 25% of the US population. I have no particular metrics in mind (and in particular I think measures of inequality as such are not very useful here, though they may give useful information about other things), but those people have had a particularly lousy deal over the last while and any reversal of this would do much to qualify Obama as a "good" president.

Also: I am inclined to agree with Doug S. about the coming recession/depression, but I am not an economist and am mostly doing my not-very-good best at synthesizing what I hear from others who know more.

If Obama can reverse the decline of US intellectualism and his successor is another intellectual, I'll call that success. Otherwise he's just a flash in the pan.

Maybe we should try to get down to brass tacks, and specify some specific metrics. Most of this aren't things the president has direct control over, but he's very charismatic, and we don't have any reason to think the democrats won't follow his lead like the republicans did with Bush:

-A reduction in the number of Americans killed over-seas, relative to a post-WW2 average. Yes Bush left him in a bad position, but if he can't make the best of it then he's not "great".
-A reduction in the number of foreigners killed by wars, sanctions, and other hostile acts by the United States government.
-A net decrease in trade restrictions (I'm not sure how to measure this).
-While consuming more of certain types of health care services may not be a good idea, it would be nice if health care wasn't responsible for as many bankruptcies as it is now. An improvement in health outcomes and costs should be doable.
-Positive economic growth in 2010-2012.
-At least a 10% reduction of government liabilities (including medicare and social security, as a percentage of GDP) by 2012. This may be very difficult if he lets huge stimulus bills be passed.

This is really an absurd amount of trust to put into one man put into power by such an imperfect process. I'd be happy if he just got rid of the TSA.

Obama would be great if he

1) refused to spend any of the rest of the bailout
2) eliminated the income tax
3) privatized social security
4) replaced federal spending on education with vouchers
5) actually deregulated the economy
6) eliminated subsidies
7) supported free market solutions for every economic problem
8) opposed anti-free speech codes and laws
9) opposed laws against "offending" people, since the one who takes offense is the one who decides on a whim if the law was broken or not, making such laws completely arbitrary
10) eliminated the federal reserve and put the value of money on a firmer footing than the whim of politicians

Of course, I don't expect him to do any of this. Which could be good for me, since I am trying to get a free market think tank focused on the arts and humanities started. We at The Emerson Institute for Freedom and Culture ( http://www.emersoninstitute.org ) welcome your support.

I want it to be cool to be smart again.

I'm assuming the U.S. will largely end active military actions in Iraq in 2010 due to Iraqi pressure independant of who is president. I'll mostly blame Bush for the remaining war there unless it lasts longer than that.

If Obama can reverse the decline of US intellectualism and his successor is another intellectual, I'll call that success. Otherwise he's just a flash in the pan.

This is a provocative remark. I have often argued that American culture has a nearly optimal attitude toward intellectualism - skeptical where appropriate, and respectful where appropriate.

Surely, as an admirer of Taleb's work, you admit the existence of "fake" intellectuals, aka quacks. These are people with advanced degrees and long resumes who spend their time thinking about and debating superficially deep topics, but who at the end of the day don't really know anything. As Taleb notes in this awesome Edge.org essay, before 1900 doctors killed more people than they saved. It seems clear now that many of the people who run Wall St. are quacks. Communism was such a seductive form of quackery that even rationalist paragons like J. Robert Oppenheimer were taken in by it. From the constant bickering in the field of economics, we can probably conclude that half of economists are quacks (though we can't be certain which half). In politics we observe that anti-intellectuals like Reagan can achieve great results while men universally acknowledged as brilliant such as Rumsfeld and McNamara lead us to disaster.

I think that American culture has internalized the fact that intellectualism by itself does not guarantee good results, especially in fields like politics and economics, and that's why we tend to be skeptical of "public intellectuals". In contrast the culture seems to accord a reasonable amount of respect to real intellectuals, to the extent that they can be identified. So I'm not at all convinced that restoring the status of intellectualism, in the abstract, is a good thing. We'll probably just end up spending more time on frivolous education and wasting more money on quacks. What we need is a more thorough understanding of the conditions under which intellectualism can succeed.

I agree that Obama will have trouble changing broad policy in more than maybe one or two areas. But there is a whole lot to be done in the details. When we partially pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan, will it be poorly managed and a threat to stability, or will troops only be removed from nonessential areas and the remainder used effectively to keep order? Will the minor financial rules be ones that hurt businesses or discourage competition, or will they mostly accomplish their goals even if those goals are modest? Will the bailouts and stimuli be idiotic pork measures, or done according to economic models that predict where and how they can do the most good? Will Homeland Security continue their policy of investing resources to harass clearly innocent people on airplanes, or will there be studies of costs versus benefits of different approaches?

Most large-scale policies depend at least partially on the details for their successes and failures. If we'd been better prepared going into Iraq, it certainly wouldn't have worked perfectly, but the ensuing chaos and violence would have been much less. That's the sort of thing I expect Obama to change. Continue the policies he's politically forced to continue, but do them in a smarter way. What will be the benchmarks of success? Probably non-flashy, inglamorous things like numbers of terrorist attacks/month in Iraq, number of teen pregnancies or high school dropouts back home, health care spending per person, et cetera. I could fairly be accused of trying to weasel out of setting a bar because I'm not actually looking at those numbers and setting values that I want, but that's more of a time committment thing.

Oh, and what's your support for the statement that governments are just bad at managing Katrina-type disasters? If I remember right, one of the reasons Katrina was such a scandal was that FEMA was considered an exemplary government agency until Bush gutted it and installed his cronies.

That's my expectation for Obama right there: that he'll be the sort of president who won't gut agencies and appoint cronies, but will put competent people in charge and try and keep things running smoothly. That's probably worth more than most large-scale policy changes right there.

it's very easy to know which economists are quacks. Go and actually read The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money by John Maynard Keynes. Pay special attention to chapter 24. A first year formal logic student could rive trucks through the holes.
Keynesian economics were selected based on political expediency. Certain groups were looking for some scientism to justify their social engineering schemes. They found Keynes.

The less the President does, the happier I'll be.

Larry, was it ever cool to be smart? Was it actually uncool to be so recently?

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