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February 23, 2010
Cargo Cult President (updated)
On February 22, 2010, after well over a year in office and more than three years after announcing his candidacy for President, Obama released his health care reform plan.
Yet he urged Congress to pass health care reform last August.
And with all that time to come up with his own plan, the Congressional Budget Office says the plan is not detailed enough to estimate its cost and other impacts. Per CBO director Douglas Elmendorf, "CBO cannot provide a cost estimate for the proposal without additional detail."
What was released on the White House web site was not even a legislative proposal, but an outline of intentions. One could say that it looks an awful lot like a campaign issue statement.
If not already painfully obvious to anyone paying attention, all the Obama administration can do is campaign. That makes total sense, since Obama had never held an executive or even managerial position in his entire life prior to being sworn into office. But he had tons of experience campaigning and giving speeches.
In short, that's how he thinks the world works: give a speech and publish a public relations brochure on your web site, and the world responds.
He is the Cargo Cult President. At least the real Cargo Cult followers built real things that looked like landing strips to get airplanes loaded with food and supplies to land on them. Obama thinks you get factories to produce things and hospitals to fix people by making speeches -- speeches that are reasonably good imitations of speeches given by real leaders.
Update: Dennis Sevakis points out that "cargo cult science" is a term with a noticable creator.
Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist who shared in the 1965 Nobel prize for his mathematical formulations relating to sub-atomic particle interactions. He was for a while a professor at Cornell; was offered a professorship at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, where Einstein was a member of the faculty; but instead chose to take a position at sunny Caltech, where he was to do his greatest work. Perhaps you recall the stir Feynman caused when, as a member of the Roger Commission investigating the 1986 Challenger disaster, he performed his on-camera experiment demonstrating the fragility of the booster o-ring material at and below freezing temperatures. All he needed was a glass of ice water and a sample of the ring material to illustrate the folly of having launched the shuttle in sub-freezing temperatures - against the advice of engineers, by the way. Feynman died in 1988.
“Cargo cult science” is a term coined by Feynman in conjunction with his commencement address to the Caltech graduating class of 1974. His personal investigations into a number of popular paranormal fads, along with his considerations regarding “modern” theories of education and of criminal rehabilitation, led him to the following conclusion:
He goes on to explain wherein the problem lies:
I can only imagine what he might have to say about Al Gore and his “scientific consensus” regarding “global warming,” now recast as “climate change” since there seems to have been a pause in the “warming” bit. Today’s politics, and its deliberate misuse of “science” and “new studies,” seem to not permit, let alone reward, any sort of “utter honesty” or “leaning over backwards” when legislating law, administering policy, reporting the news, or while truth searching at university. Certainty is the watchword. Doubt verboten.
One seemingly unanswerable question is how much of this nonsense is really cargo-cultism, that is, ignorance, and how much is obfuscation or deliberate deception? Are the political, educational and punditry high priests and priestesses true believers? Or do they just perpetuate the myths to perpetuate themselves? Is there a way to tell? To distinguish between the cultists and those who are not? Would it make any difference if we could? Questions, I suppose, without answers.
Feynman may provide a bit of one possible answer when he cautions:
When it comes to cargo cult politics, such prudence seems in short supply. Fooling oneself is more likely par for this course.
The American electorate seems to have fashioned itself into two large political cargo cults. We have the forms – elections, representatives, courts – the appurtenances of democracy. But judging from the current economic chaos and its concomitant middle class angst, the dismay of conservatives, as well as what seems a perpetual leftist hostile rant, all we seem capable of is fashioning more form. More law, more regulation, more studies, more Congressional testimony… more, more, more. Is it time for less? Is it time to stop being fooled? Whether by ourselves or our cargo cult leaders? Who, in turn, may very well themselves be fooled?
Do you? Do I? I certainly hope so. But I try not to fool myself and thus do I wonder.