“The opposite of Trump is an Asian man who likes math,” Andrew Yang is fond of saying. He’s not alone in drawing contrasts between himself and the incumbent. In one way or another, all of the contenders are promising to bring dignity, competence, and sanity to the White House. And they’re right. Compared to the current Commander-in-Chief, every candidate in the Democratic primaries is—to quote the man himself—a very stable genius. Most, however, fail to appreciate one of Trump’s gravest flaws as president: his contempt of experts.
“Nobody knows the system better than me. I alone can fix it!” declared the man with no prior experience in government as he accepted the Republican Party's nomination. True to his word, he rarely takes advice from anyone who disagrees with his prior judgment. He prefers to listen to his gut, and his gut gets its information from Fox News.
One of the few persistent voices in the president’s ear is the economist Peter Navarro, who’s continually pushed for the trade wars. The vast majority of economists are opposed. That would give most presidents pause. In fact, it has: During the 2008 primaries, Barack Obama called NAFTA “devastating” and “a big mistake.” He later revised his views based on expert opinion and publicly admitted that he’d been wrong.
That kind of epistemic humility is an essential quality for a president. Which is why I was heartened to read Pete Buttigieg describe his decision-making process at length in Chapter 11 of his book. First he talks about the value of data:
When I took office, it was clear that too many decisions were still made based on gut feel, rather than data—and some operations never got rigorously analyzed at all. Old-fashioned local government is notoriously full of seat-of-the-pants operations, even as financial pressures and resident expectations should be forcing us to become hyper-efficient. No one could tell me, when I took office, how much it cost to fill in a pothole, or how many times we missed a trash pickup in a given neighborhood in a given week.
Then he spends several pages warning of the limits of data-driven policies, providing the cautionary example of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara:
Before serving in public office, McNamara had been the CEO of Ford Motor Company, and the use of data and metrics on his watch escalated almost to a kind of fetish. After the Vietnam War collapsed into chaos, historians and journalists inquired into how the most brilliant minds of their generation could have led the country into such a lethal blunder, and the image emerged of McNamara as a data-obsessed manager who missed the forest for the trees.
Finally, he discusses big data and artificial intelligence:
Computers can now crunch sets of numbers so vast that the patterns that emerge from them are beyond the reach of the human mind—and yet the patterns can be used. Utilities like our waterworks are beginning to tap into computing capabilities that can accurately predict points of failure in water systems without our truly understanding how the prediction was made—only that it works.
Ironically, what makes this kind of predictive technology most interesting is that it so closely resembles human intuition. More often than we realize, humans rely heavily on knowing things that we can sense, but not explain…
And again, he expresses an understanding of these tools and their limitations:
Capable of something resembling intuition but nothing quite like morality, the computers and their programs can only imperfectly replicate the human function we call judgment. Knowing when one valid claim must give way to another, or when a rule must be relaxed in order to do the right thing, is not programmable, if only because it is not completely rational. That’s why, even as reason has partly replaced divine intervention for explaining our world, it will not replace human leadership when it comes to managing it.
When the campaign is behind us, whoever wins the presidency will have countless tough decisions to make. Mayor Pete’s approach to making those decisions, his careful weighing of evidence and expertise, strikes me as more Obama-like than any other candidate’s.
This is Part 4 of an ongoing series making the case for Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.