Saturday, January 26, 2008

Rational Ignorance?

. Saturday, January 26, 2008

I puzzled a few days ago about why the media focuses so much attention on how our Presidents in Waiting would respond to the current economic situation. Today, the folks over at Marginal Revolution have a nice post summarizing and then discussing a Matt Yglesias post on PIW John McCain's apparent ignorance of economics. (Davide Leonhardt has a good article here) Yglesias' bottom line is: "John McCain would not govern very well on economic policy issues, and would fare poorly in a campaign that focused heavily on economic problems."

How much economics McCain knows, and what that implies for his qualification to be President raises a broader question: might it be fully rational for president to know zero economics? Consider the following two propositions:

  • The president has no institutional authority to affect any macroeconomic policy instrument directly. The constitution (Article I) assigns to Congress (to the House, actually) authority over fiscal policy. The Federal Reserve Act assigns to the Federal Reserve Board the authority to set monetary policy. Thus, the president cannot directly make any decision that affects either of the two major macroeconomic policy instruments. It is not obvious, therefore, why a person who wishes to be president would invest lots of time learning the intricate details about economic policy. Because time is scarce, wouldn't it be more rational to invest in learning about those issues that one would be able to affect directly? In the US political system, the president has greatest authority over foreign and security policy. (This is probably why most presidents ultimately wind up focusing on foreign policy and wind up being remembered more for foreign policy than domestic policy successes and failures (with some obvious exceptions, such as FDR).
  • In selecting a president, we are really selecting a presidency, an organization with a highly-refined division of labor staffed by people with specialized knowledge. Perhaps we have a mental image of our president sitting in the oval office for hour after hour pouring over the details of one policy after another. Being president is much like being in school--one hour on macroeconomics, one hour on international politics, etc. This is not what the president does. The president sets a broad agenda; the president (and staff) select people. These people, with expertise in their field, make policy. The president then persuades and cajoles, brides and threatens legislators to vote for these policies.
The president's job, therefore, is to set the agenda, pick smart people with expertise who share this broad agenda, create an organizational structure that enables these people to work effectively, and try to get Congress to enact the policy proposals that emerge. It thus seems quite rational for McCain (and all other candidates) to have little knowledge about economics.

This makes me wonder whether we don't focus on the wrong things when we select presidents. Because the president is a leader, a politician, and not a policy maker, perhaps we should focus more attention on our PIWs' leadership capabilities: their broad agendas ("where do you see the country in five years?"), their ability to work effectively with Congress ("do you think that you work well with others?"), and the degree to which we believe they will exercise good judgment in those domains where they have greatest authority (foreign affairs). This would allow us to worry less about what they as individuals would do when confronted with some hypothetical situation about which they have no expertise and over which they have little direct authority.


Anonymous said...

Spot on.

Rational Ignorance?




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