The G-File

Putting the ‘O’ in EbOla

President Obama is updated on a new Ebola case, October 12, 2014. (Getty/Pool)
Will the bungled Ebola response poke a hole in liberals’ theory of infallible government?

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (especially self-monitoring readers overjoyed that Ronald Klain has been named Supreme Allied Commander in the War on Ebola. What could go wrong?),

This will be the single greatest “news”letter of all time. It will make you laugh. It will make you cry. Pathos, logos, and ethos will leap into the San Diego Zoo bear pit of your mind and shout “Bear Fight!” When it is over, you will feel like you kissed your long-lost love both goodbye and hello at a Paris train station. You’ll be rested, as if you just woke from a nap by a waterfall using a panda bear’s belly as a pillow. While it’s not true we only use 10 percent of our brains, you will feel like that had been the case up until now. You’ll be able to cook twelve-minute brownies in seven minutes. You will never have to eat kale again. This will make total sense to you. Suddenly, whether asked to train cats to use a human toilet or use a semicolon correctly, you’ll say, “Of course, a child could do it.”

#ad#Now, even grading on my own curve, this was a remarkably stupid paragraph to write. The first rule of writing is “Sacrifice a bull to Crom before you start typing” (“Is that what we’re calling it now?” — The Couch). No, the first rule of writing is that there is no first rule, save perhaps “Always write in the language of your intended reader.”

(I mean, if I wrote this in Esperanto or Iroquois I’d lose a lot of you pretty quickly. But I believe good writing — like good jokes and good food — is whatever works. But some kinds of writing are riskier than others, which is why my Epic Poem (So epic I needlessly capitalized both “Epic” and “Poem”!) about the cancellation of Firefly molders in my desk drawer).

In fact, the reason that first paragraph was so dumb is that it violated a rule that transcends even the obscure-rightwing-free-“news”letter industry. No, really.

That rule is: Never overpromise. The common phrasing is “never overpromise and under-deliver,” but under-delivering is almost inherent in the word “overpromise.” It’s not an overpromise if you fulfill expectations. In other words, managing expectations is really important.

Indeed, the necessity of managing expectations is one of those invisible bits of embedded wisdom and knowledge that makes civilization work. It is a necessity in every walk of life and every vocation. It’s obviously important in sales. But it’s often just as important everywhere else, from sports, to cooking, to parenting, to leading, and any human relationship. For instance, managing expectations in a friendship is deeply tied to notions of trust and loyalty. If I say you can count on me no matter what, but then when you throw me the Aztec idol and I don’t throw you the whip in return, trust is lost forever (or until I’m run-through by booby-trap spikes).

In fact, when you think about it, expectations are the currency of trust. Overspend the former and you exhaust the latter.

The O Stands for Overpromise

Every president claims the mantle of confidence and competence, and rightly so. That’s what leaders do and what we expect of them. But Obama was really something different. From the earliest days of his presidential run right through to today, Obama has exuded a boundless faith in his own competence and in the ability of government to tackle any problem. We all remember this sort of thing:

“I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters,” Mr. Obama told Patrick Gaspard, his political director, at the start of the 2008 campaign, according to The New Yorker. “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m going to think I’m a better political director than my political director.”

Finding other examples of Obama setting the bar impossibly high for himself are as easy to find as examples of Joe Biden putting squirrels in his pants (I mean that figuratively, not literally, the way Joe Biden means “literally”). The sheer arrogance of a foreign policy based on “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff”; the notion that you could vow the seas would stop rising thanks to your nomination and not eventually be mocked for it; his declaration that “I actually believe my own bullsh*t”; his assurance to a congressman that the 2010 midterms won’t turn out like they did in 1994 because “you’ve got me”; his claim that cynicism was his only opponent, as if he personified hope like a character from Pilgrim’s Progress; his determination not to be like Bill Clinton but instead be a “transformative” president who would “make government cool again.”

But most of these familiar examples go to the man’s psychology more than his ideology, and I find the ideology more interesting — but not unrelated. After all, when you believe l’état, c’est moi,” it’s unlikely you will follow up that thought with a painful concession that L’état est un caniche obèses incompetent (which Google translate tells me is the “state is an obese incompetent poodle”). In other words, it is very hard for Obama to countenance the idea that the government he embodies isn’t as awesome as he is. This in part explains why Obama loves to say “I” and “me” whenever things (allegedly) go well, but it’s always “them,” or “they” or — very rarely — “we” when things go poorly.

#page#Of course, Obama’s ideology is larger than him — which is one reason I dislike so many rightwing explanations of Obama’s motives as stemming from his post-colonial, Alinskyite, African-Indonesian-Muslim life story. All of that stuff might be true. Indeed, some of it surely is (Note: I do not think Obama is Muslim, sorry). But even if it perfectly explained why he does what he does, it doesn’t explain why millions of Americans voted for him and agree with him. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are not nearly so exotic as Barack Obama, and yet they are in ideological lockstep with him. Why? Because they are liberals. Full stop.

The Party of Government

#ad#And you know what? Liberals believe in government. I don’t just mean they believe in it as an institution — conservatives and, yes, libertarians, believe in the institution of government. After all, what is all this reverence for the Constitution about if you don’t believe in the government it establishes? No, liberals believe in government as a source of meaning, as a shaper of souls (though don’t ask them to use the word “soul”), a creator of values, and a reliable tool for the guiding hand of progressive experts to rightly order our lives. As the opening video at the Democratic convention proclaimed without a sense of irony: “Government is the one thing we all belong to.”

And this is why government incompetence, or even mere government fallibility and error, present a unique problem for the Party of Government. To be fair, plenty of smart liberals can concede that government gets stuff wrong. But it’s always a difficult concession to make. And if you divide up such concessions between instances where liberals place the blame squarely on government itself and instances where they blame politicians for not going “all the way” with government, you find that the vast majority fall into the category of “if only we had more government.” The overwhelming majority of liberal critiques of Obamacare, for instance, hinge on the complaint that it didn’t go far enough. If only we went with single payer, and completely chased the moneychangers out of the temple of health care, everything would be fine. The War on Poverty failed because $20 trillion amounts to woeful underfunding when measured against the yardstick of the infinite funding liberals desire.

In crude Marxist terms, liberals have a theory of infallible government that is constantly at war with the reality of life. Hence the old joke(s): “Sure it works in practice, but does it work in theory?”

Putting the ‘O’ in EbOla

Which brings us to the administration’s Ebola response. As I wrote yesterday (and earlier this week), the Obama administration and the various spokespeople for the public-health agencies seem to care more about the theory of government omnicompetence than about the practice of government competence. I understand that the challenge presented by this disease is complex. And I sympathize with the desire to forestall panic by giving an air of confidence and professionalism. And, whether I like it or not, I understand that politics must play a role in every major government effort, particularly so close to the midterms. But even with all of these caveats, it’s still stunning to watch the government cling to the theory of government infallibility. As I wrote yesterday:

The communications operation of the federal government has been classically Obama-esque. At every turn they’ve overpromised and under-delivered. It seems obvious to me that the two main drivers of this failure are an undue prioritization of politics and a typical overconfidence in the government bureaucracy. Whenever you listen to Friedan, Fauci, or Obama talk about this, they do so in a way that leaves you wondering what the real facts are. What are they not telling us? At every turn they issue categorical statements about how things are under control and that X or Y won’t happen and when X or Y happen, they say it’s because of a breach in protocol they cannot identify. It’s as if the theory of government competence is more important than dealing with the reality of the situation at hand. That theory is only reassuring when it conforms to reality. When it doesn’t, it makes the next categorical statement not merely less reassuring but actually more worrisome.

Which brings me to an excellent point Yuval Levin made yesterday in the Corner. Rather than see this crisis as an unfolding real life problem that the government learns from, we see this as a failure of government omnicompetence.

This crucial process of learning lessons has been hampered so far by a peculiar attitude that often emerges in our politics in times of crisis and imbues our debates with the wrong approach to learning from failure. The attitude is premised on the bizarre assumption that large institutions are hyper-competent by default, so that when they fail we should seek for nefarious causes. Not only liberals (who are at least pretty consistent about making this ridiculous mistake) but also some conservatives who should know better respond with a mix of outrage and disgust to failures of government to contend effortlessly with daunting emergencies. But do we really expect (or even want) our government to have the power and ability to smooth all of life’s edges and be ready in an instant to address the consequences of, say, a major hurricane or massive oil spill or deadly disease outbreak? What do we think that government would be doing with that power the rest of the time? What we should want and expect is a government that can respond to unexpected emergencies by calling upon generally plausible prior planning, quickly building up capacity when it is needed, and learning from unavoidable early mistakes.

The most prominent of the arguments from nefarious causes has been the notion that what we’re witnessing now is the result of budget cuts — because surely an adequately funded government would also be omnicompetent.

I agree with this wholeheartedly, but it’s worth making the admittedly partisan point that Obama set himself up for this reaction. I agree that conservatives shouldn’t buy into liberal assumptions, but when liberals elevate the State to the Divine, it’s perfectly acceptable to point out how far short of their own standard they’ve fallen. I mean a month ago, Obama might as well have promised we wouldn’t see a “smidgen of Ebola.”

Meanwhile, when you divinize the State and then fail to demonstrate divine competence, you necessarily invite the secular version of a theodical crisis. Why would the God-State let such things happen? In such crises, liberals grow desperate. They ridicule the public for being fearful. They cast blame on underfunding in a way that sounds like, “If only we sacrificed more of our livestock to God!” They tweet idiocies that are greeted as wisdom by the faithful. Here’s Joy Reid of MSNBC: “To the anti-government wingers in my thread: so far, the only ‘spread of Ebola’ in the U.S. was caused by a private hospital in a red state.”

#page#It’s the Margin of Error, Stupid

One final point. It’s worth bearing in mind that the incompetence on display by the government so far has actually been quite minor in the grand scheme of things. What makes the Ebola crisis different is not the amount of error but the fact that our tolerance for error is so much lower. All things being equal, the CDC has been a model of excellence compared with the routine screw-ups in every other branch of the government. Can you imagine if a failure to abide by government “protocols” at HUD transmitted Ebola? Millions of Americans would be dead already. If an American got Ebola every time a TSA agent or Obamacare bureaucrat made a mistake, the fight for dominant species status in North America would be between German Shepherds and grizzly bears.

#ad#The margin for error in government, when it’s extremely well-run, is enormous. When a government is as huge, dissolute, and distracted by a 10,000-headed hydra of “priorities” as it is today, that margin of error is no longer even a margin of error, it is a function of government itself.

Various & Sundry

My apologies to those of you who took me at my word that this would be the greatest “news”letter of all time. Alas, it comes nowhere close to such greats as Bud Gretnick’s “Guide to Home-Curing Kosher Bacon,” never mind the legendary Saul Leibowitz’s “10 Things to Do When You Get Your Junk Stuck in a Toaster” or Sarah Millman’s “Why ‘Gay as a Frenchhorn’ Isn’t a Homophobic Phrase.”

The truth is this would have been a pretty bad week, even without the Biblical plague creeping up on us. I took the kid on a surprise trip to Florida last weekend, which was great. But I got a call my first night waking me from a deep cocktail-and-sunburn assisted slumber from the Fair Jessica notifying me she was in the hospital in need of an emergency appendectomy. She’s fine, thank God. But as you can imagine, finding someone to watch the Dingo from Florida alone was a headache I hadn’t planned on. Upon returning, my recovering bride and I had to finish our taxes (we got an extension last April), and that was all the proctological fun you’d expect. There were many other lowlights, including the torrential rainstorm in Pennsylvania that almost caused me to hydroplane off a hillside on my way back from Penn State. There was also all of the fun that could be had from dealing with the Dingo’s Ebola-esque GI problems last night. And then there were numerous professional problems and disappointments I probably shouldn’t share (“So, you’ll tell us your dog — who constantly attends to her nether region while sitting on my head, by the way! — had the trots but you’ll keep the other stuff private?” — The Couch).

In short, you can give this week back to the Indians, as Paulie Walnuts might say.

My column from yesterday is on the cowardly canard that Alison Grimes is a “Clinton Democrat.”

In cheerier news, the great Corgi Gotterdammerung continues (Fred Garvin, Male Prostitute, says “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take . . . our chew toys!”)

At some point we must ask, “Why do they hate our breakfast beverages?”

Your public schools at work, people.

Your government at work, people.

6 terrible first drafts of iconic characters.

Water footprints, for the win!

Google translate, for the win!

Black cat auditions.

Here’s one reason why we don’t want Ebola reaching India. “Experts note that many of the 640 million Indians still defecating in the open might opt not to use a toilet, even if they had one at home, thanks to widespread preferences for going outside.”

Semi, Hemi, Demi: A Guide.

25 symbols, explained.

8 British expressions, explained.

By all means, let’s blame a lack of funding for the response to Ebola.

Anything good is better with Godzilla.

Is there a lawyer in the house!?

Debby’s Links!

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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