Wednesday, July 27, 2011
- Obama's Confirmation Bias
In my world, there is nothing more dangerous than believing in a process which in does nothing but confirm your biases. The question that successful money managers ask themselves more than any other is “How can I be wrong about this?” We obsess over it, and re-ask it continually. We revisit it over and over and over again, and lose sleep over it. And only after we’ve obtained all sorts of external confirmation of our conclusions do we consider taking concrete action.
But I don’t think this is how Obama operates. Instead of continually looking for external confirmation for his conclusions, he fixes his beliefs about a question based on his vision of the world. Then when reality fails to meet his expectations, he re-examines the question ex-post, finds some other ‘externality’ to blame the failure on, and carries on with the same set of progressive biases. This is common problem with folks from the faculty lounge, and it’s particularly pronounced in more liberal academics. Obama certainly fits that description, and his past behavior seems to confirm it.
When it came down to the wire on the Obamacare debate, the bill was more or less defeated by the Republican Senate win in Massachusetts. At that point, Obama and the Democrat congress were operating on the assumption that it was a ‘failure to pass a bill’ on healthcare that hurt Democrat’s in past elections. So rather than reexamining what was motivating voters and looking for external confirmation, he found polling data which confirmed his initial bias and acted on those assumption.
They found an obscure parliamentary procedure which allowed them to pass a bill over the objection of the voters, believing that this 'success' would cause them to rally to his flag. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead, the American people decided that if one Scott Brown wouldn’t spell it out to Obama, maybe 65 Scott Browns would. And in the midterm 2010 elections, the Democrats were routed, and the Tea Party took effective control of the house.
Once again, Obama didn’t see it that way. He looked at new polling data which confirmed his bias that the American voters still wanted ‘change’. He stated his view that the ‘Tea Party’ victory in 2010 was caused by the same instinct which brought him into power in 2008. This sounded laughable to the people who supported the Tea Party. But to Obama this made perfect sense because it was the only view that would confirm his initial biases. It hadn’t occurred to him that the Tea Party was a protest vote directed at the Democrat vision, or that voters saw him not as a change for the better but for the worse.
Now here we are again. Rather than seeing a single chain of events with a common thread which would invalidate his worldview, Obama is once again looking at the situation and seeing a totally new problem. He sees this debate as being unconnected to the Obamacare debate or the 2010 election. And as is typical for him, he’s finding polling which confirms his initial biases, and immediately acting on them.
This time he’s gotten the idea that Americans want a ‘balanced’ approach to this debt ceiling issue, and he’s interpreting that as showing broad support for new taxes. His belief in this view is so strong, that he says he’s willing to veto a bill that doesn’t include them.
Yesterday on CNBC Squawk Box, Judd Gregg speculated that Obama is trying to force a crisis so that he can garner the political favor that would come from a delay in issuing social security checks. To call that a risky tactic is an understatement.
But if anyone were going to take a chance like that, I think it’s someone like Obama. If you operate exclusively on bias confirmation and a bias like that matches your vision, then this makes perfect sense both as a political tactic and as a means of garnering broader support. He’s obviously hoping that he can go on TV, blame the Republicans, and that America will rally to his flag. I'm afraid he's horribly mistaken in this belief.
If you think this is a criticism of Obama, I suppose it is, but it’s not a personal one. I think he’s a fairly intelligent guy who because of his career choices, has never learned ‘how to think’. It’s common enough on the path he’s chosen. And I think it’s the only way he can be as detached as he seems. Instead of learning how to determine the objective truth, he’s spent his whole life insulated from the consequences of being wrong, and embracing a vision that requires no external verification. And he’s taken that vision with him into the presidency.
I think he was fantastically wrong about the lessons of the healthcare debate. I think he was fantastically wrong about the lessons to be learned from the 2010 election. And I think he continues to be fantastically wrong about what the debt ceiling debate should be telling him. I think he’s filtering out any information that doesn’t confirm his initial bias, and because that’s so, he has every intention of ‘doubling down’ again. There still won’t be any personal consequences to him if he does this – and if you are operating with his bias, it’s a tactic that makes perfect sense.
I hope I'm wrong. Maybe it's my biases about academia and the progressive worldview that are being confirmed here. But I think you have to admit that my conclusion has a worrying amount of external data to support it.