Empirical Incrementalism Trainspotting

Obama has surrounded himself with advisers who are experts in their fields. The common thread among his advisers is that they are committed to policy grounded on empirical, up-to-date research.

Despite Obama’s reputation for grandiose rhetoric and utopian hope-mongering, the Obamanauts aren’t radicals–far from it. They’re pragmatists–people who, when an existing paradigm clashes with reality, opt to tweak that paradigm rather than replace it wholesale. As Thaler puts it, “Physics with friction is not as beautiful. But you need it to get rockets off the ground.” It might as well be the motto for Obama’s entire policy shop.

The campaign’s focus on behavioral economics is particularly encouraging. As an undergrad, I was astonished that the Economics department was housed in the same building as the Marketing professors. Didn’t they ever talk to each other? Since that time, behavioral economics— the study of economics as it relates to how humans actually behave rather than lines on a graph— has become ground zero for econ in the past decade-plus.

The explanation of their foreign policy is also pretty encouraging, and it helps explain Obama’s much more intelligent approach to Iraq than most of the Democratic establishment:

[T]he Obama hands tend to feel less hemmed in by establishment opinion. As one Obama adviser puts it, ‘Democrats want to be just a little bit different from Republicans, but not so different that they get attacked for being weak.’ Like [former Indiana Senator Lee] Hamilton, the Obamanauts generally reject this calculus–not because they favor some radical alternative, but because clinging to received foreign policy wisdom can preclude highly practical courses of action.

The article discusses Obama’s receptivity to eliminating nuclear weapons— a goal that Eisenhower embraced, and that we are bound by treaty to pursue.

So, Obama is a candidate with an appealing, optimistic attitude, and a set of well-grounded progressive policies untethered to the DC establishment (though I think Paul Krugman has the better of the argument on health care). I’m starting to get pretty enthusiastic about this guy, who had been my third choice at best.


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