November 05, 2009

The Seductions of Proximity to Power

Via Corrente, I was directed to this perceptive and highly interesting account of a meeting between a group of economics bloggers and "senior Treasury officials." A list of the invited bloggers can be found here. From the latter post, we learn what can and cannot be discussed about this meeting: "As it is, I can talk about it, but not quote any officials there, nor say who was there from the Treasury."

To state the issue informally, I can only observe that to insist that the identities of the Treasury individuals be kept secret is deeply pathetic. This is identical in principle to the widespread practice of relying on the alleged "authority" of anonymous government officials, even with regard to the most crucial issues, and we all know (or should know) what that leads to. See, e.g., the criminal war on Iraq, and the ongoing demonization of Iran. I also observe that this kind of insidious practice only continues because people allow it to continue, by participating in meetings like this, for example. So make of that what you will.

But Waldman's account has several points of interest. Here, I will mention only a couple of them. The first is this:
The second thing I'd like to discuss is corruption. Not, I hasten to add, the corruption of senior Treasury officials, but my own. As a slime mold with a cable modem, it was very flattering to be invited to a meeting at the US Treasury. ... It very clearly was not the purpose of the meeting for policymakers to pick our brains. The e-mail invitation we received came from the Treasury's department of Public Affairs. Treasury's goal in meeting with us was to inform the public discussion of their past and continuing policies. (Note that I use the word "inform" in the sense outlined in a previous post. It is not about true or false, but about shaping behavior.)

Nevertheless, vanity outshines reason, and I could not help but hope that someone in the bowels of power had read my effluent and decided I should be part of the brain trust. The mere invitation made me more favorably disposed to policymakers.
Further, sitting across a table transforms a television talking head into a human being, and cordial conversation with a human being creates a relationship. Most corrupt acts don't take the form of clearly immoral choices. People fight those. Corruption thrives where there is a tension between institutional and interpersonal ethics. There is "the right thing" in abstract, but there are also very human impulses towards empathy, kindness, and reciprocity that result from relationships with flesh and blood people. That, aside from "cognitive capture", is why we should be wary of senior Treasury officials spending too much time with Jamie Dimon. It is also why bloggers might think twice about sharing a conference table with masters of the universe, public or private. Although the format of our meeting did not lend itself to forging deep relationships, I was flattered and grateful for the meeting and left with more sympathy for the people I spoke to than I came in with. In other words, I have been corrupted, a little.
In my view, Waldman's self-awareness about these issues takes the worst sting out of them from one perspective, but the corruption still remains corruption. True, he acknowledges that, but it's still corruption. So from another perspective, perhaps that makes it worse. (And in that connection, what to make of this, from earlier in Waldman's post: "it was an extreme privilege to sit across a conference table and have a chance to speak with these people. And despite the limitations of the event, I'd rather there be more of this kind of thing than less.")

The stakes in this particular case are very minor, so it's not a momentous question either way. However, when the stakes are raised, corruption arising from closeness to power and the perception of having "influence" (or even just hoping that one does: "I could not help but hope that someone in the bowels of power had read my effluent and decided I should be part of the brain trust") can become very important indeed. So this is a dynamic well-worth noting.

The second passage that arrested my attention was this, and it's along the same lines:
The most interesting aspect of the meeting was anthropological, getting a look at how senior Treasury officials behaved, how they interacted with us and what kind of thing this was to them. It was a two hour meeting, but different groups of officials came at us in shifts, and stayed with us for 20 to 40 minutes. The tone of the meeting was open, earnest, and informal. But somehow, it never felt like we connected, like there was a lot of actual communication occurring. There were eight bloggers, and although some of us spoke more than others, we were all aware that "air time" (as Yves put it) was scarce, and we limited followups to make sure there was time for others. The officials, on the other hand, didn't seem to perceive the time as precious. One spoke very deliberately, very slowly. Others were quick to pick up on and run with funny tangents, anything that could serve as a focal point for harmless banter. (The name of Michael Panzner's blog, "Financial Armageddon" played that role a lot, so perhaps "harmless" is not quite the word.) This is just my impression, and I may be mistaken, but I got the sense that they do this kind of thing frequently, these rolling meetings with some group of people whom it is important to treat as important, but whose conversation they don't necessarily value all that much — people who are there to be "brought into the tent". (It reminded me of when, a long time ago, I had to do technology demos for an endless stream of corporate backers.) I felt like, aside from the talking points above, their openness, earnestness, and sincerity were the core of what they were trying to convey. The trenchant verbiage back and forth was just something that had to be endured while sustaining the appropriate attitude. I don't blame them for this. In fact I may be projecting, describing how I myself would behave if I had an important policy job with this sort of "public affairs" meeting as a frequent interruption. Nevertheless it was my impression.
If you put these two passages together, you see that the second excerpt very accurately captures the real point of the meeting: not to listen to and seriously consider the bloggers' views, but to bring the bloggers "into the tent." I would argue that Waldman's acknowledgment of the fact that he was "corrupted" (albeit only "a little," in his view) makes his own tentativeness about the purpose of the meeting from the government's perspective very unconvincing. He is very tentative ("I may be projecting..."), but his own earlier remarks establish not only that what he gently offers is in fact what was actually going on, but -- most importantly -- that it works.

In effect, the Treasury officials were saying: "See? We're really good guys. We want to engage with you about all this, and we're on your side. And you're all so smart, so of course we want to hear what you think. Work with us, okay?" And the officials are also conveying, at least emotionally and implicitly, that criticisms shouldn't be too harsh: "After all, we're all on the same side, right? We're all good people, with the best of intentions." And as I said and as Waldman acknowledges, it works: "I was flattered and grateful for the meeting and left with more sympathy for the people I spoke to than I came in with."

As I also indicated, I don't intend my own observations to be unduly harsh with regard to Waldman or the other bloggers who attended this meeting, at least not with regard to this example alone. This was a very minor event, with no implications as to policy or future government actions that are apparent. But as Waldman suggests, this is only one example of a much larger pattern: the various mechanisms that government employs to neutralize opposition, thus making it much easier for government to pursue those goals that matter most to it. I've written at length about one very significant example of this same dynamic, an example that has already had enormously damaging and destructive effects: Obama himself. For a discussion from over a year ago, see "The Fatal Illusion of Opposition."

Even if Waldman's example is a minor one, I would argue that the general dynamics are of immense importance. And because the overall mechanism is so critical, perhaps this event isn't so minor after all. Waldman's account provides a valuable window into how these dynamics work and how effective they are. I'll be analyzing further instances of the same phenomenon in some upcoming essays, and those examples are more obviously of much greater consequence.

So, to be continued...