Closing of the Presidential Mind

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POLITICS JULY 5, 2004

Closing of the Presidential Mind

On February 27, 2001, George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress. When the president had last ventured to the Capitol for his inauguration 37 days earlier, he had delivered a homily urging the nation to move past the sting of the Florida recount. This time, he dispensed with the magnanimity and unveiled his agenda, delivering a speech filled with promises to cut taxes, pay down the national debt, study Social Security privatization, and deploy national missile defense. 

If commentators had been allowed a peek inside the West Wing in the days before Bush's address, they would have noticed that the speech didn't just set policy priorities; it defined the administration's intellectual style. During the Clinton administration, wonks immersed themselves in the preparation of State of the Union addresses. In the months leading up to the speech, academics--from Michael Sandel to Robert Putnam to Alan Brinkley--suggested themes. During the last fevered weeks, speechwriters sat at their keyboards while government economists cycled through their offices to fact-check language and tweak proposals. Michael Waldman, Clinton's chief speechwriter, described the process in his memoir, Potus Speaks, as repeated "grill[ing of] policy experts" and "[boiling] gallons of advice into a few tablespoons of intense sauce."

In the Bush administration, it didn't quite work that way. As former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill told journalist Ron Suskind, the administration was so "distrustful of the agendas of expert staffers in the various departments" that they were simply removed from the speechwriting loop. Treasury economists, for example, had no opportunity to double-check the president's numbers and therefore couldn't purge a disingenuous understatement of the amount of redeemable U.S. debt--a $700 billion understatement that conveniently made the president's large tax cut seem less fiscally onerous. According to O'Neill, the phobia of experts led the White House to "circulat[e] final drafts of the State of the Union to almost no one outside the West Wing."

In nearly every corner of the administration, examples of this derisive attitude toward experts abound. Bush has stripped the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy of his title "assistant to the president"--a migration down the organizational flow chart that requires him to report through White House aides rather than to the president himself. The Bushies have evicted the Council of Economic Advisers, an office renowned for its nonpartisan calculations, from the White House complex--a relocation that The Washington Post described as the "political equivalent of being sent to Elba." And those are just the symbolic shots. Seemingly everyday, newspapers run stories about experts whose opinions have been either ignored or stifled. Last year, Medicare chief Thomas Scully reportedly threatened to fire one of his agency's actuaries if he provided Congress with accurate estimates of the cost of the administration's prescription-drug benefit. When the administration planned to loosen the regulation of mercury emissions from power plants last year, it never consulted Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) experts. "E.P.A. staffers say they were told not to undertake the normal scientific and economic studies called for under a standing executive order," according to the Los Angeles Times. And, in May, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) overruled the recommendation of a scientific advisory panel that had reviewed 40 studies and 15,000 pages of data, refusing to permit over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill.

You can even tell the story of the postwar failures in Iraq by recounting the episodes of experts scorned. Throughout 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon prohibited its officials from participating in interagency planning for reconstruction. According to The Atlantic's James Fallows, when the CIA convened Iraq specialists to imagine worst-case scenarios that might follow Saddam Hussein's defeat, the Defense Department forbid its officials from joining the exercise. Across the river in Foggy Bottom, the State Department's Future of Iraq Project produced a 13-volume report, based on a yearlong collaboration with over 240 Iraqi exiles. But, when General Jay Garner--the first head of postwar Iraq reconstruction--wanted to borrow ideas from these findings, his Pentagon bosses ordered him to ignore State's work. A shame, one Garner aide has lamented, since they had desperately needed it. "We had few experts on Iraq on the staff," he told The New York Times last October. Even the shortage of troops on the ground traces back to the Pentagon's dismissive attitude toward experts. In his book Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward documents how General Tommy Franks kept providing Rumsfeld with war plans produced by top military planners, only to receive knee-jerk exhortations to revise the blueprints so they required fewer bodies.

The most common explanation for this animus is that the White House overflows with political hacks uninterested in the nitty-gritty of policy. But the administration's expert-bashing also has deep roots in ideology. Since its inception, modern American conservatism has harbored a suspicion of experts, who, through adherence to inductive reasoning and academic methodologies, claim to provide objective research and analysis. To be sure, this social-scientific approach has its limits. Conservatives have raised genuinely troubling questions about its predilection for downplaying the role of "culture" and "values" in shaping human behavior. But the Bush administration has adopted a far more extreme version of this critique: It takes the radically postmodern view that "science," "objectivity," and "truth" are guises for an ulterior, leftist agenda; that experts are so incapable of dispassionate and disinterested analysis that their work doesn't even merit a hearing. And the results have been disastrous.

Ever since the progressive era, the American policy establishment has believed, as my colleague John B. Judis put it in The Paradox of American Democracy, "that the way to a disinterested social policy was through the application of social science to national problems." At the close of the nineteenth century, the government began stocking the bureaucracy with economists, sociologists, statisticians, and other experts. First, they arrived in Washington in dribs and drabs to perform technical tasks--the Bureau of Labor, created in 1884, began compiling data on wages and working conditions. Then, at the height of the progressive fervor, government experts started exerting control over whole swaths of the national economy. Woodrow Wilson created the Federal Reserve Board in 1913 so economists could manage the circulation of money. Over the ensuing decades, the world wars, the cold war, and the war on poverty all swelled expert ranks. By 1978, a National Academy of Sciences report found that 180 government bureaus and agencies spent $2 billion annually on social-science research.

Hostility to this government-by-experts didn't begin with Bush. The disillusioned liberal intellectuals who clustered around The Public Interest journal in the mid-'60s and came to be called neoconservatives--including Irving Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and James Q. Wilson--developed the most comprehensive critique of the experts. At first, they didn't reject the progressive vision of government. They just disliked the way it had been applied. If there was a theme to their complaints, it was that social science focused too much on material "fact" and ignored the importance of "culture" and "values." So, for instance, when Moynihan analyzed the problem of black poverty, he focused on the decaying family structure. And, when Wilson studied violent crime, he emphasized that the root problem wasn't so much economic deprivation but policing that turned a blind eye to low-grade infractions like jaywalking and public drunkenness, creating a dangerous tolerance of deviancy.

Neoconservatism may have begun as a friendly critique of the bureaucratic experts--pointing out "the limits of social policy," as Nathan Glazer titled a 1971 essay--but it soon became a hostile one. The events of the late '60s and early '70s, especially the revolts on university campuses, decisively alienated the neocons from their liberal colleagues. Drifting further rightward, they increasingly echoed Barry Goldwater's libertarian attacks on big government, and they began describing its experts more ominously, lumping them with New Left radicals. Essays in The Public Interest and Commentary denounced social scientists as avatars of a "New Class" of "intellectuals." Their supposed objectivity, the neocons argued, was merely a cynical guise for them to seize power and pursue a liberal agenda. "Though they continue to speak the language of `progressive reform,'" Kristol wrote in 1976, "in actuality they are acting on a hidden agenda: to propel the nation from that modified version of capitalism we call `the welfare state' toward an economic system so stringently regulated in detail as to fulfill many of the anticapitalist aspirations of the left."

By the mid-'70s, the Public Interest crowd hadn't just grown hostile to experts. It had grown hostile to socialscience itself. As Judis writes, the neocons came to reject "the very idea of a dispassionate and disinterested elite that could focus on the national interest." In the end, they sounded a lot like their enemies on the far left. "While the new left rejected social science as being implicitly `probusiness' and `promilitary,' the new right and its think tanks rejected it for being `antibusiness' and `left wing.'" The term "New Class" has faded from intellectual fashion, but this conservative animus toward social science has only grown. Under Bush, a president who happily dismisses government experts as "bean counters," it has become a guiding ideology.

From its inception, the CIA has been staffed by devotees of the social-scientific method. Legendary Director Allen Dulles--who picked the Agency's tweedy motto, "And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free"--intended the Agency to be an ivory tower, where analysts, protected from political pressures, would produce disinterested findings. As the Yale historian Sherman Kent, the longtime director of the Agency's Office of National Estimates, wrote in a seminal 1949 textbook on intelligence, "[W]e insist, and have insisted for generations, that truth is to be approached, if not attained, through research guided by a systematic method. In the social sciences ... there is such a method."

These pretensions made the CIA a ripe target for the New Class critique. Nobody raised graver doubts about the Agency than Albert Wohlstetter, the University of Chicago political scientist who mentored both Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and former Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard Perle. In 1974, Wohlstetter published an essay in Foreign Policy, charging that the U.S. government chronically underestimated the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Over time, conservatives developed a theory to explain this alleged undercounting of missiles: The Agency was biased--stocked with graduates of elite liberal colleges who were schooled in secular rationalism and the mores of the New Class. Richard Pipes, the Harvard historian who chaired Team B--a panel of outsiders the CIA eventually invited to reexamine its intel on the Soviet threat--wrote a 1995 Commentary essay portraying the archetypal Agency analyst like this: "Such a person does not understand and therefore is unable to take seriously ideological or religious fanaticism; he interprets behavior that does not serve his conception of enlightened self-interest as either affectation or the result of material want and social injustice." Abram Shulsky, a rand Corporation analyst who ran the Pentagon's controversial Iraq war-planning outfit, the Office of Special Plans (OSP), has made this critique at length in essays and in Silent Warfare, a book he co-authored with Gary Schmitt. Instead of trying to understand tyrannical regimes on their own terms, Shulsky and Schmitt argue, CIA analysts have been trained to believe that "people are fundamentally alike and want the same things"--that all of humanity can be studied with the same models that economists and sociologists apply to farmers in South Dakota.

There's something to this critique. According to rand's Greg Treverton, a former vice chair of the National Intelligence Council, "[A]nalysts too often assume that America's adversaries have rational motives." (The Agency is well aware of this flaw, which analysts call "mirror imaging.") But, rather than simply using this critique as a basis for prodding analysts, Bush officials have taken a more extreme position. One former colleague of Wolfowitz and other top administration officials told me that "they so believed that the CIA were wrong, they were like, `We want to show these fuckers that they are wrong.'" Public statements, naturally, aren't nearly so vituperative. Still, there's a long history of dumping on the Agency. At a 1994 seminar, Wolfowitz charged CIA analysts with perpetrating a classic New Class trick: They present their findings as objective "sanctified intelligence judgments" when they really conceal "ignorance of facts" and "policy bias."

To correct for these deficiencies, the administration has sought to make analysts more subservient to policymakers--"even though," as Wolfowitz put in 1994, "some in the Intelligence Community seem to think this is a bit like bringing infidels into the mosque." In late 2001, Rumsfeld's Pentagon created the Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group, which would evolve into the OSP headed by Shulsky. It charged the group with reanalyzing the CIA's raw intelligence and scouring for instances of Iraqi sponsorship of terrorism that the Agency had been too biased to catch. As Perle described the justification for the group in a July 2003 interview with PBS's "Frontline," "If you're walking down the street, [if] you're not looking for hidden treasure, you won't find it. If you're looking for it, you may find something. In this case, [the CIA] hadn't been looking."

Perle's metaphor, however, crumbles almost instantly. For starters, it's not like the CIA hadn't spent thousands of man-hours searching for an Al Qaeda-Iraq nexus. As Clinton terrorism specialist Daniel Benjamin has exhaustively documented, the CIA searched intensely and found little significant evidence. And that's the problem with Perle's analysis. He wanted forgone conclusions built into the intelligence analysts' assumptions. (The treasure must be hidden!) This methodology led the Bush administration to look past the CIA's caveat-riddled assessment of Saddam's WMD programs, overrule the Agency's doubts about whether Iraqi agents had tried to buy Nigerien yellowcake, and uncritically swallow testimony from defectors provided by the Iraqi National Congress. The infidels had entered the mosques.

Wolfowitz's belief in policy-maker supremacy is typical of the administration. Over the last four years, it has tried to transform bureaucratic experts from independent arbiters into authors of administration talking points. Consider the case of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which was founded in 1974 as part of a post-Watergate spree of good government reforms. It was intended to keep the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which was lodged inside the White House, honest. The CBO has guarded its apolitical bona fides fiercely, hiring an ideologically diverse staff and refraining from public punditry that might cast doubts on its independence. It has consistently issued reports disputing the rosy budgetary assessments emanating from the White House. The Clinton administration, for example, spent its first term suffering CBO rebukes. When the CBO tallied up the costs of Clinton's health care plan, its analysis showed that the program would swell the deficit by $74 billion--a far cry from the $58 billion in net revenue that the Clintons had promised it would generate. "They are a fact-checker that keeps the administration honest," says the Urban Institute's Len Burman, a veteran of both the CBO and the Clinton Treasury Department.

From its creation until last spring, the CBO calculated the effects of tax cuts and estimated growth using careful, consensus-minded econometric models. Conservatives derisively termed this method "static analysis." In its place, they wanted the CBO to adopt their more "dynamic" model--one that assumes, as supply-siders do, that cutting top marginal tax rates will dramatically increase incentives to work, spurring growth rates higher than any Keynesian would dare imagine possible. As conservatives describe it, this model would show that tax cuts would also give a healthy boost to government revenue. That is, when a tax cut is calculated dynamically, conservatives hope it will be shown to cost less money--an adjusted price tag that will make such cuts easier to sell the public. The conservatives' campaign succeeded, and, in the spring of 2003, the CBO used dynamic scoring for the first time.

But "static analysis" was part of the CBO's tradition of neutrality. When cobbling together its models for protecting economic growth, the CBO operated within the best progressive tradition of disinterested policy-making. It has, historically, based its predictions on a modest set of assumptions. While the CBO calculated the economic effects of government revenue lost from tax cuts, it steered clear of both Keynesian and supply-side models, which would require contentious predictions about how tax cuts influence savings and work. The CBO approach left much less room for individual economists to impose their own ideological and theoretical agendas. And, in the end, the method was a concession to the limits of economics: There's not much that the discipline can predict with great certainty, so static analysis limited itself to the few variables around which there was broad agreement.

The campaign to impose "dynamic scoring" is an effort to transform the CBO from an honest broker--one that uses calculations partial to neither the left nor the right--into an engine for supply-side economics. When conservatives attack government economists, who mostly oppose dynamic scoring, they level the classic criticism of the New Class: The experts are biased and corrupt. Attacks on the office by The Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal editorial pages have accused the CBO of using models that seem centrist and uncontroversial at first glance, but, in fact, are merely a ruse to distract from its closet Keynesian biases. Writing in the Journal, supply-sider Bruce Bartlett has charged, "Although the CBO would today deny being a bastion of Keynesianism, it continues to use methodologies devised during its early days, and many of its key players are still on board." The result is "an agency that has over the years been so supportive of the Democrats' agenda."

During previous Republican administrations, these arguments remained on the ideological fringe. But, in the Bush administration, they emanate from the very agencies that were supposed to house neutral, objective arbiters. The then-head of the Council of Economic Advisers, Glenn Hubbard, testified before Congress on the cause's behalf in May 2002 and made the case on the Journal op-ed page.

Unfortunately for the Office's critics, the economy's performance over the last two years has demonstrated that the CBO's old methods predict economic performance far more accurately than dynamic scoring does. In 2000, Stephen Moore and columnist Larry Kudlow challenged the CBO's predictions of surplus, dismissing them as far too modest. Describing their own calculations in The Washington Times, Kudlow wrote, "Using historical growth trends, budget surpluses over the next decade could easily rise to $7 trillion, 50 percent above the CBO estimates." Needless to say, as this year's projected $370 billion deficit evinces, their analysis was a tad too dynamic to capture economic realities. And that's the point: Their method isn't about advancing toward an objective analysis; it's about advancing policy goals.

The administration's assault on the hard sciences has been even more audacious. Take its stance on global warming. When Bush arrived in Washington, he announced, "My administration's climate-change policy will be science-based." But, every time the bureaucracy assesses the science on which such a policy could be based, the administration stifles it. In May 2002, the EPA submitted a report to the United Nations documenting the human role in the accumulation of heat-trapping gases. But, after industry began carping about this document and its implications for policy, Bush publicly dismissed it as "a report put out by the bureaucracy." A few months later, the administration purged the section on climate change from the EPA's annual air-pollution assessment.

The following year, it bowdlerized the EPA's firstever Report on the Environment--a document that the Agency's administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, had intended "to be a hallmark achievement in identifying indicators that can be used to measure EPA progress in protecting human health and the environment." Originally, it included a long section on the risks posed by rising global temperatures. "Climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment," the report read. But then the OMB and the White House applied their red pens. They excised this statement and tinkered madly with the rest, inserting phrases implying that cooling is as grave a threat as warming. And, throughout the report, they inserted the words "potentially" and "may," implying uncertainty on subjects about which there is broad agreement. After all these revisions, the EPA felt its report "no longer accurately represent[ed]" scientific opinion. Instead of releasing such an error-riddled paper, the EPA dropped its climate section altogether, replacing it with a paragraph that a New York Times editorial described as "pablum about the complexities of the issue."

There are dozens of similar examples of scientific abuse. Last year, top EPA officials quietly blocked dissemination of a report analyzing the efficacy of congressional legislation limiting the release of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury. The administration quashed the report because it would have highlighted the necessity of imposing regulations it opposes. In March, the Los Angeles Times reported that the National Marine Fisheries Service hired six leading marine scientists to study the health of West Coast salmon and steelhead trout species. But the service stripped almost all of the scientists' recommendations from its official report.

While this suppression seems like naked pandering to the administration's industry friends, there's an ideological superstructure to justify its behavior: Conservatives contend that even scientific conclusions stem from ideological bias. Politicizing Science: The Alchemy of Policymaking, an anthology published by the Hoover Institution and the industry-funded Marshall Institute, is the critique's clearest distillation. The book contends that scientists are driven by a "love of power and domination." They produce studies that show environmental crises, for instance, because these crises spur Congress to spend money on the EPA--which, in turn, finances their research. In other words, as with budget and intelligence analysts, scientists may style themselves as objective, but they are anything but. It's an argument that the Bush administration repeats often: Officials argue that policy should flow from "sound science," not "junk science."

There may be instances of government funding genuinely junky science. But the genealogy of the Bushies' argument has dubious roots: It was pioneered by the tobacco lobby. Documents procured in recent litigation show that, in the early '90s, cigarette companies wanted to cast grave doubts on government scientists' capacity to produce fair research. But they didn't want to be too closely associated with this debunking. Instead, tobacco quietly formed a coalition of industries that would challenge every aspect of government science, from its studies of global warming to auto safety. They called their group, formed in 1993, The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition. As the University of California, San Francisco's Stanton Glantz and Elisa Ong have described, "The `sound science' movement is not an indigenous effort from within the profession to improve the quality of scientific discourse, but reflects sophisticated public relations campaigns controlled by industry executives and lawyers whose aim is to manipulate the standards of scientific proof to serve the corporate interests of their clients." Despite its cynical motives, tobacco's sound science coalition acquired a broad following. Interior Secretary Gale Norton advised the group, and its approach has found its way into the Bush administration.

The "sound science" argument has been most prominently invoked by Harvard Professor John Graham, who heads the OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (oira). Last summer, Graham proposed restricting the bureaucrats' power to assemble peer-review panels--which assess the validity of science used to make policy--and transferring it to the OMB. Worse, his proposal suggested that most scientists who received funding from a government agency be prohibited from peer-reviewing any science used by that agency. Industry-funded scientists, by contrast, would be subject to no such restrictions. Tufts University's Anthony Robbins, the co-editor of the Journal of Public Health Policy, fulminated that the new process "could ultimately destroy integrity in science as we know it." Because the response to his original proposal was so strident, Graham scaled it back, largely removing restrictions on government-funded scientists. But a revised proposal released last April still has the same effect. It shifts responsibility from expert bureaucrats to political appointees. The same people who had decried the politicization of science will have been more responsible for it than any policymakers in American history.

There is a great irony in all this. The Bush administration's leading lights, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, reached political maturity in the Nixon-Ford years--in retrospect, a golden age of social scientific policy-making. During that bygone era, experts were more than tolerated. They were given unprecedented access to the Oval Office. Paul O'Neill has described how Nixon would summon middling OMB staffers and demand they prepare lengthy "Brandeis briefs," brimming with data and detailing both sides of an argument. "Pray God you didn't leave out some important point or counterpoint," O'Neill recalled to Suskind, "Nixon would call you on the carpet." In part, this greater intellectual honesty could be chalked up to Nixon's and Ford's personal politics. Their moderate ideologies--or lack thereof--demanded far fewer ready-made solutions and, therefore, necessitated a greater study of options. The high-water mark of this era came when Gerald Ford quietly brought John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman to his office for a session of gladiatorial combat over economic policy.

In keeping with the more intellectually honest spirit of the times, the Nixon and Ford White Houses found a place for a Democrat, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He captured the best part of the old ethos. Moynihan's neocon comrades allowed their critique of social science to metastasize into a far more radical theory of policy-making: They lost faith in the ideal of progressive government altogether, treating policy-making as a brutal war of ideologies. Moynihan had good reasons to join them in this view. When he wrote his famous report on the black family for the Labor Department in 1965, the liberal social science community blasted him for encouraging "a new form of subtle racism," as the Harvard psychologist William Ryan put it in The Nation. But, as much as this rebuke wounded, Moynihan couldn't bring himself to endorse a sweeping critique of the New Class. Instead, he proposed an entirely different response to social science's shortcomings: to cling more tightly to the ideals of social science and the earliest spirit of The Public Interest. "The best use of social science is to refute false social science," he once quipped. For the rest of his career, he crusaded for creating conditions in government that allowed for better social science. His battles ranged from the relatively arcane (pushing for a more accurate Consumer Price Index) to the all-encompassing (railing against government secrecy, which he argued "hugely interfer[es] with the free flow of information" upon which sound analysis depends). As inadequate as he found social science, he considered the alternative--a rejection of empiricism--more frightening.

In other contexts, conservatives have been just as eloquent in denouncing the onslaught of relativism and ideology. Describing the attitude of the professoriat, Lynne Cheney wrote in a 1995 column: "As they saw it, the traditional scholarly mission--the pursuit of truth--was a task that only the naive or duplicitous would undertake, because truth does not exist. What we think is true is merely a construct, a creation that the powerful impose on everyone else. The intellectual's obligation is thus to construct new versions of truth to achieve social and political goals that have gone unmet." She's right, of course, to decry and resist this pervasive relativism; empiricism deserves preserving. But, if it's worth defending in the classroom, why do her husband and his colleagues in the administration value it so little in pursuit of the national interest?

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posted in: politics, washington, los angeles times, the new york times, the washington post, the washington times, iraq, abram shulsky, alan brinkley, bob woodward, clinton, daniel patrick moynihan, donald rumsfeld, george w. bush, irving kristol, james fallows, james q. wilson, jay garner, michael sandel, michael waldman, paul o'neill, paul wolfowitz, richard perle, robert putnam, ron suskind, saddam hussein, thomas scully, tommy franks, woodrow wilson, central intelligence agency, congress, department of defense, department of state, environmental protection agency, federal reserve board, food and drug administration, harvard, medicare, office of management and budget, pentagon, white house, florida

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