The Trouble with Experts, and with Parallel Universes

by Jonah Goldberg

Dear Reader,

 

Herman Cain’s Expert Problem . . .

Herman Cain just doesn’t seem ready for the job of president. I thought that before this maybe-sorta-possibly-kinda-not-really scandal, and his campaign’s utterly craptacular response to it only reinforces that impression.

But that’s not my main reason for thinking he’s not ready. First of all, there’s the fact that his “unconventional campaign” looks remarkably like a book tour. The guy was in Alabama last week.

And please don’t tell me that criticizing his unconventional campaign is unpersuasive because he’s been riding so high in the polls. Cain’s impressive performance in the polls is almost surely not the result of his campaign genius. It’s a product of the fact that Cain’s an impressive, charming guy with a bold plan, amidst a less than thrilling field of competitors. If Rick Perry hadn’t thrown up all over himself like a fraternity pledge who ate too many pickled eggs after drinking a bottle of Everclear, no one would ever have defected to Cain and none of us would be talking about his brilliant maverick campaign style.

Time after time, Cain responds to pressing questions by saying, in effect, “I don’t have enough information for that now. I would need to be briefed.” (I’d provide actual quotes but A) I’m lazy and B) I don’t have Wi-Fi on this plane.) He says this sort of thing in particular about foreign-policy issues, such as the war in Afghanistan. If you think you need a classified briefing to have a basic opinion about that war, it means you don’t understand the job.

I’ll give you a better example. Cain often says that he would bring the best experts into the Oval Office and go with what they tell him. That’s what leaders do, he explains.

But that’s not true. A decision shouldn’t even make it to the president’s desk if the experts don’t already disagree on it. That’s what presidents are supposed to do: make the call when expertise alone won’t suffice.

And in fairness, on that level I trust Cain. I think his instincts are right about most of the big-picture things, even if from time to time he says things he clearly hasn’t spent two seconds thinking through (his claim that he might swap all of the prisoners at Gitmo for a captured American being a good example).

In a way he reminds me of the father-in-law from the movie Fargo. A smart, tough, older businessman who believes that the answer to every problem is to “hire a professional.”

Well, the first professionals he hired are the people running his presidential campaign. How’d that work out for him?

 

. . . and Romney’s

I have a similar complaint about Mitt Romney. As Mark Steyn and others have pointed out, Romney has a disturbing tendency to simply take his ideas off the conventional-wisdom shelf. He lacks the conservative’s skepticism that the “latest thinking” might simply be very old thinking gussied up as a breakthrough idea.

It’s hard to see this tendency in him when he’s in campaign mode, because it gets obscured by the pandering and positioning, but trust me, it’s there.

Where I think Romney differs from Cain in this regard is that Cain’s a manager. Hire a professional, motivate him, and stand back. Romney’s a technocrat. He thinks that the government is there to fix things. That’s what Romneycare was about, after all.

What worries me about Romney is that since he starts from the assumption that government can fix things, he thinks the way to fix things is with government. (Obviously, this is sometimes true, even according to us extremists. There are legitimate functions of government, and in those areas I can see Romney being a pretty good, even possibly great president.)

While I certainly don’t like the pandering, flip-flopping, parsing, tacking, difference-splitting side of Romney, it doesn’t bother me as much as it does some of my friends, for the simple reason that I don’t think it tells us too much about the kind of president he would be.

Sometimes campaign styles tell us a lot about what kind of president a candidate will make, and sometimes they don’t. George H. W. Bush campaigned one way, and governed another. His son pretty much campaigned the way he governed. Obama tried to campaign the way he governed but he found out that his campaign style – promising a unicorn foal in every home, same-day soul mending, tidal prestidigitation, dragging “cynicism” out of its barca-lounger and junk-punching it for the children – was hard to translate into a workable governing agenda.

I see Romney much more in the tradition of George H. W. Bush. He sees politics as a tacky business where you dance for the rubes so you can get the job your dad always wanted you to have.

The trick, therefore, for conservatives in a Romney presidency – should it ever come to pass – is to see Romney like a tool. I don’t mean tool in the pejorative sense, like “Man, that John Kerry is a tool.” I mean it in the figurative-yet-instrumental sense. Romney needs to see that his number-crunching wonkiness must be applied solely to ways to dismantle the current inefficiencies of government, not for creating new ones.

I don’t think his experience at Bain Capital is all that well-suited to creating jobs in the private sector, at least not in the way he talks about it. But the ability to effectively downsize and streamline large institutions to get them refocused on their core competencies, strikes me as something we can use in the Oval Office, so long as we point him in the right direction. If he’s pointed in the wrong direction, well, ugh.

 

Parallel Universe Problems

Speaking of doppelgängers, I finally caught up with this season of Fringe so far. Oh, wait, I wasn’t speaking of doppelgängers (“Yes, but maybe I was” – Parallel Universe Me).

So anyway, now that both me’s are speaking of doppelgängers, let me just say . . .

So, speaking of doppelgängers, Fringe is chockablock with them.

If you didn’t know, Fringe is a TV show. If it wasn’t so enjoyable, the charge that it’s a ripoff of The X-Files would sting more.

One of the central premises of the show is the existence of a parallel universe where a near-exact replica of Earth exists with all the same people, living under just slightly different circumstances.

This, of course, gives me a chance to offer my longstanding complaint about the multiverse. First of all, you’d think with an infinite number of universes, it’d be easier to find good deli.

Regardless, as we all know, parallel universes – alternate dimensions, twin planets – are one of the oldest conceits in science fiction. How many parallel earths, antimatter universes, and the like were there in Star Trek? Don’t answer that.

Also, as I understand it, the idea that there are an infinite number of universes, or realities, has some currency among actual physicists. I have no idea if that math holds up, though, as a complete science ignoramus, I find the idea that every moment is a fork in a decision tree and every possible outcome actually happens, creating a separate universe, to be battier than that old cave outside stately Wayne Manor.

My scientific objection to that idea is simply that I don’t understand where all the energy would come from. Last I checked, a whole freakin’ universe uses a lot of energy. Are we supposed to believe that because some quantum mechanical scribblings say so, every time I choose a V-8, a parallel me chooses a Shasta and a parallel him chooses a Mr. Pibb? (What’s that, parallel me with the Mr. Pibb in his hand? You shoulda had a V-8? Hah, sucks for you. Enjoy eternity on your subpar timeline.)

And keep in mind, according to this multiverse crap, I’m not just creating a new timeline for me. I’m creating a new timeline for everybody and everything. That’s a new Jupiter and a new solar system, a new galaxy every time I choose to use the farthest urinal from the next guy at the Union Station bathroom. And it’s not me, it’s all of us and everything creating new realities. Call me crazy, but that’s a lot of stuff to be created ex nihilo.

Oh, and I know I’m going to hear from a bunch of physics geeks explaining how I don’t understand. And they’d be right.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I wanted to talk about Fringe, so that’s what I’m going to do. My problem with Fringe rests on the idea that these two earths are very, very similar because there’s a doppelgänger-us over there. My problem is that once you allow for the fact that little differences occur, then the idea that anything would be similar no longer works. I just watched an episode where a serial killer on alternate earth killed 22 people, but his opposite on our earth didn’t. Well, that’s 22 people who won’t show up for work. Won’t have more kids. That in turn creates big differences. Someone gets their jobs or their apartments. And so on.

In the alternate earth, they use zeppelins while we don’t. Have any crashed? Who died? Did they not have kids?

I think the parallel-earth thing is a useful literary device, but taken literally it’s impossible even if you don’t care about the physics. It’s an interesting exercise to imagine an exact replica of earth being created right . . . now. It would have exact copies of all of us. How long do you think it would be before that earth looked very different than this one? I think it would happen very quickly. Unless of course you don’t believe in free will, in which case all of my doppelgängers are writing this exact G-File on this exact plane, at this exact moment, which seems like an even bigger waste of energy to me.

 

Kibbles and Bits

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s no syndicated column today. I had a miserable flight to Texas yesterday and it was simply physically impossible for me to type on the plane.

I’m speaking at the Restoring the American Dream conference in Washington today. I asked for some guidance on my speech and I was told to be entertaining, insightful, and inspiring. That’s a tall order. Then I realized that I’m speaking for a total of ten minutes.

So I watched the Captain America movie on the flight out. Not bad. Obviously, it could have used a lot more nudity. Regardless, here’s an incredibly dorky objection. Captain America’s shield is made of “vibranium,” which apparently absorbs all vibrations, making it a pretty awesome shield. But, wait a second, if it absorbs all vibrations, how can he bounce it off walls and stuff? Wouldn’t something that absorbs all vibrations be, like, the most un-bouncy thing ever? Also, aren’t vibrations another word for energy? So wouldn’t Cap’s shield get really hot?

Somewhere there is a parallel me not taking Captain America seriously as he sits on the beach in Hawaii. Why couldn’t that parallel me be me?

True story: This morning at DFW security – I had a 6:10 AM flight – I went through the scanner and set off the alarm. I took off my belt. The alarm didn’t go off, but I was still pulled aside by the TSA guy. I was expecting the full rubber-glove-snap search or some other infuriating intrusion of the Leviathan state. Instead, he leaned over and said, “Excuse me sir, your fly is down.”

Who says government is good for nothing?

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg