Lots of people (Ryan Cooper, Paul Krugman, Tyler Cowen, Climate Progress, etc.) are now upset about Nate Silver’s pretense to objectivity, and his disdain for unnamed pundits. I don’t have particular insight on Silver’s new venture, generally speaking these things require time to work out the kinks. But I do want to point out that Silver has an ideology. This is a history blog, so let’s look at Silver’s political ideology as illustrated during the most momentous historical episode in his political life - the bailouts. Now, back then, he was a partisan, so he didn’t mind making explicit statements about advocacy, about what should be done to fix the world.
And oh but he did have a plan to fix the world. He supported, strongly, Tim Geithner’s plans, and wanted activists to clear the road for whatever Geithner decided.
This piece, which he wrote at the height of the financial meltdown in early 2009, when Obama had just taken office and was making decisions about the bailouts, details it. Oh wait, you can’t read it, it’s not there anymore. Fortunately some people quoted parts of it and their sites are still up. So here’s how Silver started his argument, and then ended it.
Nobody, absolutely nobody, has more incentive to get this right than the Obama Administration. If the economy collapses — well, more than it already has collapsed — then the Democrats get slaughtered in 2010, Obama is a one-termer, health care doesn’t happen, the poverty rate increases by a couple orders of magnitude, and the imperative to fix the environment gets put on the backburner. To suggest that Obama or Geithner are tools of Wall Street and are looking out for something other than the country’s best interest is freaking asinine. Maybe their ideas are wrong — but their hearts are in the right place.
This is neither the time nor the place for mass movements — this is the time for expert opinion. Once the experts (and I’m not one of them) have reached some kind of a consensus about what the best course of action is (and they haven’t yet), then figure out who is impeding that action for political or other disingenuous reasons and tackle them — do whatever you can to remove them from the playing field. But we’re not at that stage yet.
There’s a long history in America of technocrats loathing mass movements while demanding that democratic structures serve the needs of experts. George Washington probably could be placed in this category - he was a surveyor and mapmaker, which was a technical profession, and he disliked political faction. Vannevar Bush, the co-founder of Raytheon and in many ways the architect of the modern military-industrial complex, was like this too. As his biographer G Pascal Gregory noted, Bush feared that totalitarianism was a more efficient and better political system, and sought military control over democratic decisions to compensate so as to win World War II and then the Cold War.
So Silver fits into a long American tradition. He has ideas about how the world should work, and these are worth understanding.
Cathy O’Neil wrote about Silver’s theories two years ago (her blog post was cross-posted in two places, with different and equally interesting comment threads). As a commenter on O’Neil’s site says, Silver is part of “the anti-politics machine.” Here’s David Sirota, at the time, arguing vehemently against this worldview.
Silver is effectively arguing that being a citizen in a democracy means taking orders from those in power, and not questioning those in power. We are all just supposed to follow blindly as the Very Serious People in Washington and on Wall Street tell us what to do.
Now my guess is that Silver would disagree with this assessment, and say that he is driven by empiricism. But it’s also clear that the decision to bail out the banks was not empirically driven, because it couldn’t have been. It was a question of values. And for Silver, that meant letting a group of experts make decisions, and then engaging in democratic power projection to ensure that any obstacles to those decisions be removed. It is in fact what actually happened. This ideology is real, and it has consequences. People who believe in this ideology preserved the banking system in this most recent crisis. They created the institutions that allowed the military-industrial complex to form, and produced technologies like the computer, atomic power, and the internet, as well as contributing to the McCarthy era and crackdowns on dissidents. The anti-politics technocrat crowd now runs Google-land, and the American empire. In many ways, given that the Constitutional convention was written by technocratic lawyers in secrecy, you could argue Silver’s ideology helped form America.
Regardless of whether you think that’s good or bad, or something in between, at least it’s an ethos.
UPDATE: If you want to Silver’s essay on Geithner, it’s here. It is worth reading. It’s also here, on his new site, but at a different url. I don’t, obviously think anyone was hiding anything, the reason I wrote that you can’t find the old link is because it speaks to how little people actually care about track records. They just sort of want a sorcerer of the moment.