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Risk and Politics (Part 4/6)

[Read Part 1: Risk | Part 2: Risky Business | Part 3: Risk & Reality | Part 4: Risk & Politics | Risk, Reality, & Bullsh-t ]

When I started this series, I said: turns out that Tenacious G and the boys haven't seen the Branagh 'Henry V', so we jump it to the head of the Netflix queue, and it shows up in the mail. We watched it the other night, and it was still wonderful (Yes, Bacchus, I'm still supporting Branagh's erotic reward). My boys loved it as well; Littlest Guy, who is six, wanted to watch it again the next day, and spent the time after bath and before bed wandering the house in his blue PJ's-with-rocket-ships-and-feet and a stern look, declaiming "No King of England if not King of France." I love my sons and they are wonderful, but they are a bit ... odd, sometimes. Somehow that line over all the others had caught him, and he and I had a long discussion in which I explained that Henry wanted to be King of France, and that he was willing to risk losing England to get it.

I'm somehow amazed that only a few people have made the G.W. Bush > Prince Hal comparison.

And in this case, I think the comparison is apt; Hal became Henry, who staked his crown on defeating and conquering France.

We know that he won, and that at Agincourt, his technology (the longbow), strategy (setting up across a muddy and plowed field), and luck made him King of France and kept him King of England.

And I believe that Bush staked his presidency on the War with Iraq (and the consequent wars we will have with interests - I am hoping that we don't have to fight any more nations - in the Middle East.

I believe that the 2004 election is being settled this month in Baghdad, and that Bush is about to win it.

Does that mean that all will play out as Bush & Co. intend in the Middle East? We'll have to watch and see.

Remember that Henry won France, but ultimately his children lost his crown.

But Bush is coming out a winner, in no small part I'll suggest, because as he is seen as being willing to take risks and that in an era of carefully machined, consensus-driven, 'find a way to say things that won't pin you into a corner' politics he is, like Reagan, willing to take a stand.

If one were to look for the common strain in modern American (and to a lesser extent, European) politics, it's the desire to avoid, at all costs, risk. One can't take risks in what you say, one can't take risks in the programs to propose. You don't take risks, because in an era of 'gotcha' politics,

So we wind up with these featureless Pillsbury-Dough-Boy (and Girl) Politicians, who desperately try to take positions without taking any positions that could come back to haunt them later. That's a problem. It's a problem first, because it deprives us of a politics of issues. It is virtually impossible to have a debate on issues when neither party will take a clearly distinguishable stand on them. Next, it's a problem because it builds into our politics a bias toward inactivity.

Now inactivity on the part of the government is often a good thing; one reason we are probably so tolerant of the long reach of the government is that it often doesn't do much. Imagine what it would be like if they really enforced 100% compliance with speed limits or the tax codes.

But, over time, government inactivity begins to take a toll, as institutions and infrastructure begin to fall in to disrepair, and as we fail to even look at the difficult issues we need to solve in order to function as a society.

Right now, the California Legislature is in its ... I think ... fifth month of trying not to deal with the budget crisis the state is facing.

Given an annual deficit of $30+ billion, that means that we've spent TWELVE BILLION DOLLARS or so while waiting for the powers-that-be to get the budget under control.

Why haven't we? because the costs of acting - of taking steps to cut programs and raise taxes - are viewed as being fatal to one's political career, while the costs of not acting, of going along and letting the 'process' sort it out over time - is a burden you can share with the rest of the incumbents.

Not only does inaction directly create costs, it creates a set of risks itself; it is important to judge actions not in terms of their absolute risk (which is typically unknowable), but in terms of the risk relative to other choices, including taking no action.

And, we seldom retire incumbent politicians for failing to act when history shows they should have. That's a mistake, because it deprives us of a dynamic market in the political sphere - we lose the 'creative destruction' Schumpeter talks about, and which is so vital to the strength and durability of a society.

And a part of the loss is to our political culture, as we begin to perceive politicians as failing to lead, failing to take stands, and, ultimately, failing to solve the problems we expect the government to face. This loss of legitimacy is, to me one of the great threats to modern political life.

But one positive thing GWB has done, I believe, is to show the benefits of taking political risks. Not only (I fervently hope) in terms of outcomes, but in terms of the direct political benefit to the risk-taker.

Now we just need to find some risk-takers on the Democratic side of the table so we can have a real marketplace of ideas...

This is Part I
This is Part II
This is Part III
Parts V > VI aren't written yet.


I agree with you that GWB will benefit from having taken this risk, for one thing because it was a calculated risk, and he has shown that he is good at calculating. People will like that. But there are also other reasons that have to do with the question "Where do we put our feet?"

I heard today that the price of gold went down. I wondered at the time why the report put it that way, instead of saying that the price of dollars went up. Perhaps it is because we are used to buying things with dollars, so don't think in terms of buying dollars. But when you sell gold, that's what you're doing.

Similarly, we are used to having politicians rated and inspected and analysed by the media and professors. But how are we to rate the media and the professors? How are we to know when they are doing a good job in assessing political leaders? One of the things that has come out of this war is an answer to that question. We have witnessed the courage, competence, compassion, and idealism - a new C3I - of the soldiers. They are from us: there are 300,000 of them and 600 reporters. The soldiers are us, and through them we have ranged the media. And that is good news for GWB, given the media's implacable opposition to him.

At the same time, Armed Liberal, I'm less concerned with what you call the "common strain" of playing it safe. I'd like to suggest an analogy to what Thomas Kuhn, in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, called normal and revolutionary science. Most scientists spend most of their careers in normal science, in which there is little debate about what the questions are, or what the research techniques are. Every now and then, someone like Einstein introduces a period of revolutionary science in which everything changes - vocabulary, theory, issues, methods. But then, a new normal science arises.

Perhaps something similar happens in politics, but the revolution comes not from an extraordinary individual, but from the people, at least in a democracy. No matter what elitists say, the US electorate is educated, knowledgeable, and sophisticated. If they respond to politicians who play it safe, perhaps that is because there is nothing that they see as worth a risk at the moment. With little reward available, it makes little sense to opt for risk. But when something like 9/11 happens, suddenly there is lots of reward available: personal and national security, payback, pre-emption of further attacks. With reward available, it makes sense to take risks. So, we could argue that people make a judgment: when they elect risk-averse politicians, they are saying, we don't see the reward. Today, the reward is on the table, so the voters are staying in.

Of course, at the time that risk becomes attractive, a society may not have the leader who can offer the risky program they want. Churchill was not Prime Minister of England when the WWII started. He became PM soon thereafter. But this time, the US was lucky. GWB was already President. If he hadn't been, I think people would have drafted him before too long.

I absolutely agree with your observations on the excellence of Henry V, Shakespeare's view of leadership, the role of moral clarity and courage...
Branagh's adaptation is superb.

And what if Henry had lost would history have judged him?

Mike - history would have judged Henry more harshly if he had lost. That's why they call it "risk."


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