Sometimes the "Rhetoric of Change" Really Means Change

I wanted to share Norm Scheiber's article "The Audacity of Data" on Obama's economic theory. It seems that Obama strays from traditional political philosophy in favor of something which Scheiber labels as "non-ideological" but which I might refer to as more complex (in a Mark C. Taylor sense), dare I say more rhetorical. Let me explain.

First, Scheiber explains that contemporary economic theory is going through a kind of sea change- the old (read:modern) methods, which relied on a mythical "perfectly rational" human actor as a foundation for its theory, are being challenged. If you've read anything on the history of complexity theory, then you know that this actor has never existed. Economic theorists were among the first to see the social significance of complexity. The radicals began abandoning top-down, hierarchical models for explaining ALL human behavior in favor of messy, but more valid, insights into particular... well let's call them economic ecologies (see Waldrip for a very readable if annoyingly hero-izing account of complexity's rise). All the development of modern economic theory is a prime example of what goes wrong when you become a slave to your deductive theory: you create a wonderful, "perfect" model that doesn't in anyway relate to how people actually live their life. D'oh. Perhaps it explains how people should live their life- but that's a very, very different thing. I'm thinking here of a favorite saying of my friend Nathaniel Rivers from Kenneth Burke: beware of confusing "is" with "ought." Hey, Nathaniel, can you give me a source on this?

On to Obama. First, let's not make the mistake of labeling Obama as non-ideological. Everyone lives according to an ideology, if we understand ideology to mean the systems of representations that underlie and inform our daily lived experience. And I'm recalling that definition from Althusser, thanks to Google I can add: "the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of life" (qtd. in Michael G. Cooke). Scheiber, of course, belongs to a different discourse community- I just don't want any Marxists breathing down our neck for the next few paragraphs.

What we might say, however, and what Scheiber details quite clearly, is that Obama's theoretical approach to economics (and politics) is anti-idealist and anti-deductive, eschewing overarching theories in favor of localized action. And Scheiber works hard to detail that this doesn't equate to being non-academic; if anything, Obama is working to put himself in contact with cutting-edge academics whose non-traditional approaches run against normal political wisdom. Quote: "the Obama wonks [and this is a loving term] tend to be inductive— working piecemeal from a series of real-world observations." He compares the Obamanauts to the Clintonites, noting that while the latter wanted to institute massive top-down changes, the former works within existing paradigms, tweaking what works and exorcising what doesn't. Here's a kick-ass metaphor:

Think of the contrast here as the difference between science-fiction writers and engineers. Reich and Galston are the kinds of people who'd sketch out the idea for time travel in a moment of inspiration. Goolsbee et al. could rig up the DeLorean that would actually get you back to 1955.

O.k., maybe a bit over the top. But it makes my brain tingle. Lest we think this approach isn't rigorous, Scheiber follows up:

And yet, just because the Obamanauts are intellectually modest and relatively free of ideology, that doesn't mean their policy goals lack ambition. In many cases, the opposite is true. Obama's plan to reduce global warming involves an ambitious cap-and-trade arrangement that would lower carbon emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. But cap-and-trade--in which the government limits the overall level of emissions and allows companies to buy and sell pollution permits--is itself a market-oriented approach. The companies most efficient at cutting emissions will sell permits to less efficient companies, achieving the desired reductions with minimal drag on the economy.

The biggest change Obama might bring to politics is a grass-roots, complex, contextualized approach to politics forgoes the rhetoric of "big changes" in favor of something different- something non-utopian but a pragmatic sensibility that works from within. While this approach might not be quite as aptly rhetorical for the current political field, it just might change the way the game is played.

Let's try that.


Casey said...

This is such an interesting post that I can't comment here -- discuss in person.

Casey said...

So, if you're really doing "work" while you watch LOST, can I assume you're going to read Philip K. Dick's Valis with me very soon? I ordered my copy right after tonight's episode... under ten dollars on half.com.

JSN said...

I'm still pretty sure a carbon tax is the most politically salable. A tax the Republicans would vote for? Well, they should.

As a counter to Al Gore speaking before Congress, the Republicans, led by Inhofe, trotted out Bjorn Lomborg. He doesn't say it isn't happening, just that it is inefficient to try to do anything about it, and we'd get more bang for the buck fighting AIDS in Africa (for instance, he has a list of dozens of things he calculates would be more cost-effective).

He also suggested a carbon tax. He cited $2 to $15 dollars/ton. So, if an average car emits about 200 grams of carbon per kilometer, and a ton is about a megagram, you'd pay 2 to 15 dollars per 3000 miles. That's just cars, lots more carbon emissions from non-consumer stuff.