Monday, June 27, 2016

You can't always get what you expect

The Magic Bus of Negativity. February 28 2016. That's the USS Intrepid in the background.
Shorter Corey Robin, "Unintended Consequences" June 27 2016:
Hillary Clinton's total incapacity to be a change-making president is demonstrated by the fact that some guy who used to work for her at the State Department told Patrick Healy that people who want to vote for Trump should think about the unintended consequences. But what if you use "unintended consequences" to mean the opposite of what it usually means? Then unintended consequences might be just what you wanted, ha ha dummy.
Seriously. I don't understand why he's doing this. He did his best for the Sanders campaign, but it is essentially over now. There is nothing further to be gained by attacks on Clinton's failure to be a revolutionary, especially on such a slender and silly basis; I'm afraid this wonderful scholar is finally turning into a troll. I wrote a longish comment, but it kept getting longer, and more and more irritated, and I finally decided to run it as a blogpost here, where he obviously won't see it, not wanting to be a troll myself.

First the post:
Thomas Nides, former deputy secretary of state under Clinton, offers a perfect summation of the creed (h/t Doug Henwood):
Hillary Clinton understands we always need to change — but change that doesn’t cause unintended consequences for the average American.
Off the top of my head, here’s a brief list of changes that caused unintended consequences for the average American (whoever that might be):
  1. The election of Abraham Lincoln.
  2. The passage of Social Security.
  3. The entrance of women into factories during World War II.
  4. Brown v. Board of Ed.
  5. Civil Rights Act of 1964
  6. Asking an unknown state senator from Illinois to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Party convention.
Politics is the field of unintended consequences (“Events, dear boy, events.”) Don’t like unintended consequences? Don’t do politics.

The "law of unintended consequences" is usually used to warn people against an ill-considered action and undesirable outcomes--as Nides here warning against voting for Trump on the example of what just happened in UK, where citizens thought they were voting for something that was never going to happen and are now shocked to find things happening that they didn't want.

You're listing events that had consequences commonly regarded as pretty good, from the preservation of the Union and abolition of slavery to the election of our first black president. Are you arguing that we shouldn't consider the consequences of policy decisions because some of them might be beneficial?

I don't quite get all the items on that list. Are you suggesting that abolition wasn't an "intended consequence" of the 1860 election, for instance? Unintended by whom? The abolitionists who voted virtually 100% for the excessively cautious, incrementalist Lincoln certainly intended it, though many racist free-soilers who also voted for Lincoln certainly didn't. I'd think it's the perspicacious abolitionists' perspective we'd want to adopt if we were thinking about how to think about how to accomplish progressive goals.

Who didn't intend what in enacting Social Security or ruling against segregation in Brown? Probably male employers didn't expect women to end up a generation later as half the labor force in the US (Rosy the Riveter got laid off right after VJ Day and it took many years to rebuild the momentum)—what about the women who took the jobs? Or the Women's Bureau run by Mary Anderson in Frances Perkins's Labor Department? (Before the war, Perkins, one of the greatest of American progressive heroes, attacked women for taking jobs from men, for "pin money", although in reality women were [a] not taking men's jobs and [b] working to support themselves and families—which doesn't mean I'll stop admiring her, merely that everybody is desperately wrong at least once in their lives.)

For the Civil Rights Act, is it an unintended consequence that it guaranteed people's civil rights? I'm pretty sure, as with Social Security and Brown, the happy consequences were part of the plan. Or are you thinking negatively this time, of the Democrats' generation-long loss of the South, which LBJ certainly did foresee? Or is it the long-term failure of the act to do its job completely effectively? Or what? Should the act not have been passed because it didn't do what we wished it had done? Should we repeal it because that President Johnson and Dr. King were such timid gradualists, always thinking about the consequences of their actions, or should we work to fix it? Or should we just vote for Trump because we have no idea what the consequences might be and that would be super-exciting?

Whoever invited Obama to speak at the convention certainly intended to contribute to the creation of a rockstar black Democratic politician but probably didn't expect him to become president—that's not an unintended consequence but an unexpectedly intense realization of a consequence that was obviously intended. Whoever it was thought through the decision, anyway, and its pluses and minuses, and didn't make a mistake.

That rhetorical trick—a decontextualized, hermeneutic reading of the phrase "unintended consequences", like Antonin Scalia's misreading of the Second Amendment—is like being the little dork who says, "You said you don't have no money and that means you do have some money so I'm smarter than you." It's insufferably priggish, and the complaint comes from a conservative impulse, in the way pessimist complaints are always fundamentally conservative ("it won't be good enough so we'd better not do anything"), and in this case not even to any purpose, just to be nasty. I am disappoint.

British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, 1960. Photo from Wikiquote. Asked by a journalist what is most likely to blow a government off course, he is said to have replied, "Events, my dear boy, events," but there is no evidence he actually said it. Corey Robin used to keep a list of falsely attributed quotations and a great thing it was. Now he's spreading them.

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