To Pick a President 2 - Negative Experience

The life a would-be President shouldn't lead.

Psychologists tell us that one of many reasons human beings make dumb decisions is something called "anchoring bias."  Wikipedia describes it:

During normal decision-making, anchoring occurs when individuals overly rely on a specific piece of information to govern their thought-process. Once the anchor is set, there is a bias toward adjusting or interpreting other information to reflect the "anchored" information. Through this cognitive bias, the first information learned about a subject (or, more generally, information learned at an early age) can affect future decision-making and information analysis.

Put another way: once someone has already mentally made a decision, it is much harder to change their mind by giving them additional information than giving the information would have been before they made up their mind.

When your daughter brings home a boyfriend covered in gang tattoos and with syringes sticking out of his lowrider pants' pocket, it is probably too late: you will not be able to convince her that he's scum by pointing out compelling evidence.  Even when the police arrest him with a suitcase full of crack cocaine, it will of course be because the pigs planted it on him, not because he is in fact a drug dealer.

No, the time to discuss suitable attributes of a prospective significant other is before you fall in love.  That way, you can objectively evaluate and eliminate when there's no emotional attachment yet.

The same is true of political candidates; we would be so much better off had Americans logically thought through what they wanted in a President sometime in early 2007!  Well, it may be too late for thought by residual Obamaniacs or even the Paulite partisans who've already made up their minds.

For the rest of us, this series discusses the Presidential decision matrix - that is, what we should look for in a President.  The first article addressed specific experience that, history shows, makes for a good President.

This article discusses the opposite: experiences that lead a person in paths that will make them a bad President, and which we should avoid.

We won't waste time with the obvious: most people know better than to vote for a convicted felon, say, or a pornographer.  There are, however, perfectly legal and even honorable life experiences that nevertheless spoil a person for the Presidency, and we'll start with perhaps the most important one:

Career Lawyer

"But wait a minute," you say.  "Practically all politicians are lawyers!"  Yes, and exactly how well have our politicians served us for, oh, the last half-century or so?  You've heard the saying, "Why don't sharks eat lawyers?  Professional courtesy."

All joking aside, there is nothing wrong with being trained as a lawyer.  Many of our Founders were lawyers, though they didn't have law schools as such in those days.  Men like Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson were trained in what amounted to a high-level apprenticeship, reading law under an experienced attorney.

If you want to write the law, it's obviously helpful to understand the law; today, that knowledge usually comes with a law degree.  Our concern is not really with the degree, and certainly not with legal knowledge.

No, the problem is specifically with the career lawyer.  By definition, a lawyer is not a productive member of society, they're much more like human-resources executives, tax accountants, and DMV employees.  All of these folks may work diligently at their jobs but they don't provide anything anybody wants.  Their service, such as it is, has value only because of government fiat and market intervention.

A private business must produce value - that is, whatever it sells must be worth more to its customers than it costs to make.  If not, nobody will buy and the company goes out of business.

Government bureaucrats, as we know all too well, don't have to produce anything of value.  Their personal interests are usually served by producing as little as possible while lobbying for more government mandates forcing citizens to use their services.  This, in turn, provides a rationale for higher taxes and larger agency budgets, which provide personal promotions and raises for bureaucrats with seniority.  All the while, people go to them because they're forced to by the government and for no other reason.

A lawyer is a bit like this.  There is no circumstance - none whatsoever - where having a lawyer means you're in an ideal situation; you only need a lawyer because you are already in a sticky spot.  While the lawyer may keep your problem from getting worse, you'll be stuck with a monstrous bill regardless of the end result.

Once upon a time, ordinary folks needed lawyers only to defend against criminal accusations and it was generally possible to avoid this need by not committing crimes in the first place.  Even businesses could go many years without the need of a lawyer simply by doing business honestly.

With today's avalanche of regulations touching everything under the sun, practically every move you make can be subject to legal sanction, thus requiring - aha! - a lawyer.  Through passing too many laws, lawyers have created yet more work for their fellow lawyers and the whole overgrown industry is nothing more than a counterproductive burden on society.

Why does this matter to the Presidency?  Think about it: do we really want a President whose first instinct is "Call a lawyer," and whose first response to every problem is "Pass a law"?

There is a time and a place for highly-skilled and experienced legal practitioners.  The Oval Office is not that place.

The way of the lawyer is to encourage blame and work on getting even; a President should concentrate on making it possible for all Americans to get ahead by their own efforts.  He should encourage Americans to fulfill their ambitions and encourage government to get out of the way.

Career Academic

For at least the past hundred years, professors and academicians have been welcome in the halls of power.  Pres. Woodrow Wilson had a PhD, taught constitutional law, and was the president of Princeton University.  Barack Obama has no PhD but he taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago.

It is not a coincidence that both of these academic presidents oversaw vast expansions of government power and intrusion into private lives.  Professors are supposed to be experts and it's human nature to look down on anyone not so expert as themselves.  If you're the best, brightest, and best-educated, doesn't that mean that you know best and others should follow your commands without question?

Of course, that's not the way a free country is supposed to work.  It's not really the way a university is supposed to work, either - once upon a time, "academic freedom" meant the freedom to pursue whatever areas of research or investigation held appeal, with truth being the only arbiter.  Unfortunately, modern universities haven't honored that freedom for many years when it comes to politically-incorrect or conservative topics.

Aside from leftist, elitist, and totalitarian biases, there's another reason why the professorial temperament is badly suited to the Presidency.  A good professor is always seeking to increase his knowledge and that of his students by further study; there's never any particular deadline, nor a limit to the amount of new knowledge that can be gained.

Nothing could be more alien to government.  A national leader never has all possible knowledge, yet must make decisions on deadline every day.  Indeed, the whole art of political leadership revolves around making your best judgement call with grossly insufficient or even wrong data, adjusting as required on a dynamic basis.  Dithering is fine and expected of a professor but deadly in a President.

In fact, ignoring missing data leads to completely different expectations and results.  Climate computer models, for instance, are famous for predictions totally different from what's observed in reality; and as complex as the climate is, a global economy made up of the thousands of individual daily choices of six billion individuals is even more so.

Predictive models will never be complete and we can never wholly understand either the climate or the economy.  For whatever reason, academicians seem to have a hard time grasping this and always overlook the unintended consequences of their latest policy suggestions.

Anyone running a free country needs to have a healthy respect for the limitations not only of their own knowledge, but of knowledge in general, along with an equally healthy respect for the unexpected.  A president must be able to be blindsided without either blinking or blindly continuing on in the wrong direction, cavalierly brushing aside evidence that doesn't fit his existing views.

Last, the life of an academic is talking, discussion, and debating; in theory, hashing things out across a table arrives at the truth.  Real life doesn't work that way; there are some people and nations that only listen to a punch in the face or a Tomahawk through the window.

A lifelong academic will always want to talk just a little bit more.  Adolf Hitler was the master of hoodwinking Neville Chamberlain with talk, talk, talk while he was beating up entire nations outside the conference room.  The Leader of the Free World should be ready to talk, but must understand when it's time to whip out Teddy Roosevelt's big stick and clonk someone with it.

As with the lawyer, there's nothing wrong with a spell of teaching and you obviously want a smart and well-educated leader.  What you don't want is an ivory-tower elitist who cannot distinguish between the ideal theoretical world of the university and the messier and more complex world of real life.

We've explored the proper experience for presidential candidates, both positive and negative, but there's more to a man than his experience alone.  In the next article in this series, we'll talk about what kind of personality and temperament we do want in a President.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Politics.
Reader Comments

I think you left out 'career bureaucrat,' though on the positive side it looks like none of the major candidates come from that background. I would love to say career politician as well, and I don't mean someone who has ever held elected office, I mean someone who has only, or mostly, been in elected office as a job.

August 24, 2011 3:36 PM

I have always said with tongue in cheek that only farmers should be eligible for congress. They of course would scam the system with more subsidies for themselves but at least they produce something for us to eat and for export. They understand hard work, risk and reward and the over regulatory environment that hurts business.

With that said I think a lot of people would like to see a housecleaning of the rock stars in congress at the next election. The problem is that only the informed are aware of the mess that we are in and the moocher class is content with the status quo as long as they get a little more each year. Well the chickens are coming home to roost pretty soon. People making less than a million dollars a year are down some 35% from 2008 so we are running out of millionaires to rob. Who is next? Oh yeah, the taxpayers (producers) that earn from 200k to 999k will be the next target. We have to elect a business man or woman this next time around with a business friendly congress. No more dopey Pelosi's, Frank's or Reed's. They must be sniffing glue to think like they do.

August 24, 2011 4:04 PM

As far as the American people "picking a president"; one word should sufice: DIBOLD.

August 24, 2011 4:58 PM

I have long suggested that an amendment be passed which makes any person who has practiced law, studied law, clerked for a judge or lawyer, or so much as swept the floor in a law office ineligible for any elective office anywhere in the United States. They've made lines inside which we all must color, frequently without any particularly good reason, making simple things complex and expensive, to say nothing of the culture explained above in the essay. Almost all they touch is destroyed.

August 24, 2011 10:59 PM

Brother John:

I couldn't agree more. Very concise and to the point.

August 24, 2011 11:05 PM

I see an interesting relationship here: (not the fact that Google seems to court the left, but how it handles the real world).

August 25, 2011 10:12 AM

That's not a bad test, Fennoman. But I know lawyers and academicians that are great at elevator pitching too.

August 25, 2011 10:23 AM

@Brother John

The only problem I have with that is the "studied law" part. Ron Paul has studied law. In some ways, he's studied it far more, and more effectively, than some career lawyers. Obama is supposedly a "Constitutional Scholar" yet who do you think knows more about the Constitution: him or Ron Paul? I've got no problem with anyone that wants to better themselves and bolster what they believe by studying the laws of our land. Study away! But please have some real world experience too.

August 25, 2011 10:28 AM

@FBI Dave

Perhaps you're right, that's a bit of hyperbole on my part - especially the 'swept the floor in a law office' bit - but my central focus was to increase the chances that those making laws (not 'writing regulations', mind you) might actually have some expertise in those areas.

August 25, 2011 9:45 PM
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