Wednesday, June 15, 2016

What Does It Mean to Be Qualified to Be President?

Donald Trump is not all that ideologically extreme, except on the issue of immigration.  What alarms me most is not so much his ideology (or lack thereof) or even his demagogic scapegoating of a vulnerable population.  It is how completely, utterly, spectacularly unqualified for the job he is.

Which raises an obvious question.  What does it mean to be qualified to be President?  For that matter, what does it mean to be qualified for any office?

Political offices may be seen on a general spectrum, from the specialist offices where the most important criterion for office is knowledge and qualification and values are of only minor importance to generalist offices in which credentials are of little importance and one is looking mostly for a candidate with the right values.

At the extreme specialist end of the spectrum are offices that really shouldn't be elective at all.  Some states have elective county surveyors or coroners.  But these are usually purely technocratic offices with no real policy-making role.  Only rarely do the office-holder's values impinge on the job; one is looking first and foremost for the best qualified candidate.  Election is a poor way of choosing who is best qualified.  That calls for in-depth interviews, examination of their background, talking to references, etc.  In short, it is a job better suited to being hired.

Next are the semi-technocratic jobs that do have policy making power, like district attorney or sheriff. These are reasonable to elect because they do set policy, so their values do matter.  Of course, so do their technocratic background.  But this is usually not a serious obstacle for several reasons.  For one, although people may be contemptuous of knowledge and credentials in a general office, the concept is easier to accept in a narrowly technical office.  It is not that hard to convince voters that they want their laws to be enforced by someone with a good background in law enforcement, or their criminals prosecuted by someone who has experience prosecuting criminals.  Besides holding up their values, candidates will presumably tout their professional experience and skill.  And if any candidate is obviously unqualified, presumably the other candidate will make an issue of it.

Members of the legislature are much more generalists who voters choose (quite reasonably) based more on their values than their technical skills.  But not entirely so.  For one thing, legislative candidates may prefer not to emphasize their views on a controversial subject for fear of alienating as many people as they attract.  They may prefer to talk about what a good job they did achieving some uncontroversial goal that their constituents can be counted on to uniformly support.  (That is one reason why incumbents are so hard to unseat -- what has the challenger ever done for the district, after all?)  And since there are more matters before the legislature than any member can hope to know in depth, they sort into committees, with each committee specializing in a particular area.  The legislature as a whole tends to defer to the superior knowledge of committees.  But at the same time, countering the appeal of the experienced problem solver who has done so much for the district is the fresh-faced newcomer, unsullied by the corrupt process of legislation.

At the same time, legislators really do know more about policy, how it is made, and its probable outcomes than their constituents.  Thus, although it is fair to argue that a legislature should share his constituents' values and pursue the same general goals that they do, he should also use his greater knowledge and experience to decide how to achieve these common goals.  Here constituents might start resenting the elitism of a legislator who claims to know better than they do.  Well, as Alexander Hamilton said:
The republican principle demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they intrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse  . . . . It is a just observation, that the people commonly INTEND the PUBLIC GOOD. This often applies to their very errors. But their good sense would despise the adulator who should pretend that they always REASON RIGHT about the MEANS of promoting it.
Or, to put in in more concrete terms, suppose a legislator is elected to represent a farm district. Farmers are being mercilessly squeezed by sharp-dealing banks and losing their farms.  Angry and upset, they call on their legislator to cancel all debts, abolish fractional reserve banking, and adopt the gold standard.  Their legislator agrees that their resentments are justified, but believes that the most immediate result of such a policy would be to cut off all credit to farmers, with disastrous results. (And that the longer-term results might be even worse).  So instead he backs stronger anti-predatory lending laws, bankruptcy provisions that make it easier to save the farm, and an agricultural loan office that will make credit easier to get.  Farmers are outraged with this snooty elitist who claims to know better than they do and elect a serious Ron Paul surrogate instead, then spin elaborate conspiracy theories as to why their preferred measures never pass.

So, yes, legislators are more generalists than specialists and properly chosen more for their values than their technocratic skills.  But in areas that matter most to their constituents, representatives will usually acquire specialized knowledge and probably know better than the people who elected them how to achieve their goals.

Finally the President (or other chief executive) is the quintessential generalist.  Legislators can limit themselves to a few specialties and defer to their colleagues in other areas.  The President, by contrast, is called upon to make decisions in many areas -- military, diplomatic, financial, law enforcement, and countless others.*  No one could possibly have in-depth knowledge in all those subject.  Presidents have to rely on advisers.  Sometimes this is unfortunate.  The 2008 election is an obvious example.  The US was facing its worst financial crisis since 1929, but finance had become such an abstruse and technical subject that only a few specialists could hope to understand it.  Either the President would have to defer to his Secretary of the Treasury and trust in his skill, or we would have to elect a banker President who did not know about any other subject.

So, granted that the President cannot possibly know in depth every subject -- or even most subjects -- that he/she will be called upon to deal with, what can it possibly mean to be qualified to be President? What can it call for more than sound instincts and good general administrative skills?  That, I think, is part of the appeal of Trump (or Palin, for that matter), the belief that someone who shares one's values will have the right instincts and make the right decisions based on them, without needing any in-depth knowledge.

To this I would reply -- George W. Bush.  Bush thought that in-depth knowledge was for out-of-touch liberal elitists, and that since he had the right values, his gut-level instinct would lead him to the right decision without having to worry about any pesky facts or expertise.  It didn't go so well.  Juan Cole is arrogant but devastating on the subject:
Goldberg is now saying that he did not challenge my knowledge of the Middle East, but my judgment. . . .  An argument that judgment matters but knowledge does not is profoundly anti-intellectual. It implies that we do not need ever to learn anything in order make mature decisions. We can just proceed off some simple ideological template and apply it to everything. This sort of thinking is part of what is wrong with this country. We wouldn’t call a man in to fix our plumbing who knew nothing about plumbing, but we call pundits to address millions of people on subjects about which they know nothing of substance. . . . If judgment means anything, it has to be grounded in at least a minimum amount of knowledge. 
Or, since Trump doesn't actually have any values or ideological template to apply, his decisions would essentially be based on blind impulse.

Still, if the President can't possibly have in-depth knowledge about every subject he (or she) will be called upon to decide about, what does it mean to be well-qualified?  I would say that to be qualified, a candidate needs a good general understanding of the major issues facing this country and a basic grasp of how our government operates.  Willingness to listen to experts in a field, but combined with the knowledge that sometimes experts have tunnel vision is very useful.  Being a quick study, eager to learn about a new area of knowledge is essential.  A good eye for what are the basics and what can are details that can be left to experts is also an important quality.  Skill at picking good advisers is one of the key measures.  And willingness to delegate is inescapable, since no one can do it all.

I suppose Trump has that last trait, at least.  As his top adviser explained, “He needs an experienced person [as Vice President] to do the part of the job he doesn’t want to do. He seems himself more as the chairman of the board, than even the CEO, let alone the COO.”  Which brings up another point.  A President will over-extend himself if he tried to micro-manage, but he will run an administration without direction if he declines to manage at all.

Still, I will concede one thing.  Being qualified is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for being a competent President.  Our foreign policy establishment no doubt knows a great deal, but its judgment has been disastrous.  But to assume that someone with no knowledge will necessarily do better is to assume that a blind marksman can be counted on to hit the bull's eye.  It can happen.  But if it does, it will be purely coincidence and nothing you would want to count on.

*That is one reason I never really warmed up to the idea of Elizabeth Warren for President.  Warren is essentially a one-trick pony.  She knows a lot about bank regulation, but not all that much about other areas.  I would love to see her as chair of the Senate Banking Committee or head of the SEC or some other agency in charge of regulating banks.  Perhaps she could even be Secretary of the Treasury, although I am open to opposing arguments.  But I see nothing to indicate that she knows or cares enough about other issues to make a good President.

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