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Jay Lake
Date: 2010-03-02 05:55
Subject: [politics] Common sense and government
Security: Public
Tags:cancer, politics
"Let's bring common sense to Washington" is such a common piece of electoral rhetoric that it might as well be printed on napkins and handed out in bars. I believe it's more widely used by Republican candidates than Democratic candidates, but the phrase is a universal meme that seems to strongly appeal to voters. "Common sense government" speaks to our archetype of the citizen-legislator, our (sad) national distrust of authority and expertise, and the life experience of individual citizens.

I also find it a frankly baffling idea.

I don't want my plumber to use common sense. I have common sense, and I can't fix a leaky dishwasher. I want my plumber to use Special Plumbing Knowledge, experience and the right tools. Which amounts to common sense for plumbers, but has nothing to do with me, no matter how many pipe wrenches I own and how many faucet washers I've changed over the years.

I don't want my cancer surgeon to use common sense. I have common sense, and I couldn't find a tumor if you julienne sliced my body open for ease of search. I want my cancer surgeon to use Special Surgical Oncology Knowledge, experience, and the right diagnostics and medical imaging. Which amounts to common sense for cancer surgeons, but has nothing to do with me, no matter how many times I keep going under the knife before this shit finally kills me.

I don't want my airline pilot to use common sense. I have common sense, and I couldn't land a plane with a scorecard and a map. I want my pilot to use Special Pilot Knowledge, experience, and a strong understanding of her well-maintained aircraft to bring me safely back to ground. Which amounts to common sense for pilots, but has nothing to do with me, no matter that I've flown something like two million air miles in my life as a passenger.

Need I go on? And I'll bet none of the politicians calling for "common sense government", and none of the voters eager for their message, want "common sense plumbing" or "common sense cancer surgery" or "common sense airline piloting." Yet the machinery of government is every bit as complex and intricate and baffling as plumbing, tumors or heavier-than-air flight. Frankly, a lot bigger and more complex.

I want government by people smarter than me, not government by folk wisdom and simple aphorism. Thoughtful analysts, policy wonks, subject matter experts, budget mavens, and all their ilk. There may have been a time and place for the citizen-legislator, but I'm not sure that wasn't ever a myth, at least in this democracy. If common sense could run government, then every cab driver who knows how it should be would be sitting in Congress.

Give me expertise over common sense, every single time.

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User: ozarque
Date: 2010-03-02 14:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"...no matter how many times I keep going under the knife before this shit finally kills me."

Not a good thing for you to be thinking. It would be an excellent idea for you to put that particular hypothesis firmly and finally out of your mind.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-03-02 14:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you. That was hyperbole, actually. My serious mental orientation is towards long term survival. I plan to bitch copiously about eldering someday.
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User: brownkitty
Date: 2010-03-02 14:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Are you saying that expertise doesn't involve common sense?
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-03-02 14:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Not exactly.

I'm saying that true "common sense" is in fact uncommon, and very domain-specific. For example, over time most of us in the US develop expertise in operating an automobile. We all share common sense about things like flooded roads, traffic jams, accidents, black ice, etc., because it's a domain in which we all participate. Likewise, hot stoves, child safety and a zillion other things that people deal with in everyday life.

In another domain, after ten years as a pro, I have loads of common sense about how publishing works. I'm still wrong about half the time, but ten years ago I was wrong 95% of the time. Look at the recent arguments about ebooks for a terrific example of how many readers' common sense about ebook pricing is pretty much dead wrong, because they don't have any experience of or understanding of publishing economics.

When politicians talk about common sense on the campaign trail, they're usually talking about Ben Franklin style aphorisms. "Neither a borrower nor a lender be." (Actually, I think that one's Biblical.) So talking about government living within its means, for example, sounds very common sense. But unless you understand Keynesian economics and the relationship between deficit spending and economic cycles, it isn't the least bit common sensical. Very few people deal with this stuff in everyday life, and it can be obscure to many who do understand it.

Edited at 2010-03-02 02:54 pm (UTC)
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User: etcet
Date: 2010-03-02 14:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Don't make me set your straw man on fire, dude, but...

This rhetoric is intended to be strategic as well as tactical. "Common sense politics" is short-hand for concepts like "don't spend more than you earn."

In that sense, yeah, I want politicians to use common sense to inform their experienced approach. As IT professionals, you and I both meld our experience and our common sense to solve the problems we encounter, and I will go out on a limb here and suggest that it is far more common for the former to reinforce the latter than run contrary to it.

That does not seem to be the case in politics, where trying the same failed policies, practices, and rhetorical gambits[1] that haven't worked before keep getting tried again, just louder, and with bigger dollar signs.

[1] The rhetoric which should fail, because it's patently false and/or hypocritical and/or makes people vote against their own self-interest, however, seems evergreen, as you have pointed out and railed against, primarily in the guise of Conservatism (ie: yesterday)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-03-02 14:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
See my comment above:


...for a take on "don't spend more than you earn" in this context.
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User: chris_gerrib
Date: 2010-03-02 14:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well said, sir.
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Fiction Theory
User: fiction_theory
Date: 2010-03-02 15:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This has to be one of the most astute looks at political rhetoric that I've seen as of late, and it helps me put my thumb on why there are so many politicians that bother me with their folksy "common sense" image. Why, yes, Palin especially.

I am bothered by the idea that the politicians who are Common Sensers seem to believe that their sense is what's common, that if it is obvious, intuitive and sounds right to them that it must be obvious and right for everyone else. It excludes the possibility that common sense isn't common because people are different and that what seems so obvious to rich, white conservative is completely mind boggling for those of us who don't believe or live the way these politicians do.

Nor do I appreciate the implication that if anyone opposes their "common sense", they're either just stupid or one of those hoity toity intellectual types just trying to confuse people.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-03-02 15:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you.
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User: martyn44
Date: 2010-03-02 15:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Is common sense bought for a penny in the street? No, it is bought for the price of all that a man hath in the desolate marketplace where none come to buy. Paraphrasing Mr William Blake, a man of little 'common sense' but transcendent vision, in his own field of endeavour.
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User: icedrake
Date: 2010-03-02 15:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
So here's the problem I have with your position.

If we accept the position that like all (or at least the vast majority) of other specialties and narrow domains of expertise, politics require specific training, then we must also accept that we, the untrained electorate, are in a very poor position to be able to judge the quality of one candidate over another. And since the candidate is intended to represent our preferences and goals, we must then also acknowledge that those preferences are based in political ignorance -- otherwise our common sense wouldn't be different from that of the political expert.

You can get a pretty good idea of your plumber's skill by looking at certification, getting reviews and recommendations, and looking up checklists of stuff to ask about online. You can check your surgeon's patient survival rate, complication rate, malpractice suit count, and general patient satisfaction feedback. You can check your pilot's flight hour record. There is no similar benchmark for politicians. Worse yet, there can't be one because in all your examples, there are discrete, repeatable tasks the professional fulfils on a regular basis. Political actions are not nearly as easy to break down, both in terms of time and context and in terms of the implications of any given decision.

How does one evaluate the performance of Obama's government with respect to the health care bill? Do we have to find a proposal that is similar in scope, in subject matter, in the house and senate seat breakdown? All three? Should we also match the loss of a senatorial supermajority to compare the situation to previous ones?
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Fiction Theory
User: fiction_theory
Date: 2010-03-02 16:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
There is no similar benchmark for politicians.

I would argue there is, and it's the same benchmark you're using for plumbers and surgeons. Past performance. That's how you're judging the professionals you list. Do their patients survive? Do other customers recommend that certain plumber, do their pipes stay fixed? Does he/she overcharge?

With a politician - you observe their voting record, you observe what measures they have taken, have those measures been successful in terms of results, you observe what is and isn't in their control and judge how they have managed it.

Saying that plumbing fixes and surgeries are discrete, repeatable tasks is a gross oversimplification. I don't know how much you know about surgeries, but they are often very different even for the same procedure. The incisions he makes are not repeatable, they are individual. Never mind decisions that must be made on the fly should problems crop up (excessive bleeding, a tumor is bigger than scans showed, problem with anasthesia, etc).

Same for plumbers. Not all houses and plumbing systems are the same. Working on a 140 year old house is different from working on a newly constructed home.

Yet we judge them based on an average of their past performances, and the same can be done for politicians. We look at the average of their accomplishments, their leadership.

How does one evaluate the performance of Obama's government with respect to the health care bill?

First by not calling it "Obama's government". You do understand that the President of the United States is not empowered to pass legislation, right?

Getting a bill through the two houses is - at the end of the day - the domain and responsibility of the various congresspeople in those houses. If it passes or doesn't, that's on THEIR heads, not the President's. He can cajole and call and speechify and push members of his party and talk and he can even jump up and down and scream and tear his hair out.

He has no authority to pass a bill through the legislature. Only to veto or sign one that which comes across his desk.

Judging the President's performance as an executive based on legislative performance is like judging a ship's captain based on the weather. A captain can maneuver and prepare for bad weather to varying degrees of competence, but when a 50-foot-wall of Obstructionism, Stupidity, and Conservative Backlash comes crashing down, even the most gifted and experienced of captains can do precious little.

If we don't have a health care, we look at which representatives are, individually and as groups, obstructing or supporting the bill and what actions they are taking. Look at those voting them into office.

That is how you evaluate the performance of The American People's government, and how you evaluate the individuals within it.
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User: madrobins
Date: 2010-03-02 15:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
So totally YES.

I also want government by experience. Not by cynicism or burnout, but by people who have some idea of how the process works and how to get things done. The rhetoric that celebrates outsiders forgets that outsiders may have to be shown where the bathrooms are, nevermind how to get a bill passed.
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User: anton_p_nym
Date: 2010-03-02 16:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Common sense says that the passage of time is invariant; yet every GPS device in the world has to take into account that it isn't.

Common sense treats the world as flat, which works well enough for many purposes; but airlines use knowledge of the Earth's curvature hundreds of times every day to save fuel and flight time.

Common sense completely breaks down when looking at quantum mechanics, in whose realm existance itself is only a matter of probabilities; yet every computer chip ever designed couldn't work without understanding it.

The idea that common sense is enough for politics (and I say this as someone who lived through a "Common Sense Revolution" that arguably hobbled health care and education in Ontario for years) is similar to the idea that everyone can write... it may apply in some general cases, but breaks down when taken out of its everyday context and applied to policies that affect not just the individual and some bystanders but whole populations. It isn't common sense that stoplights help you get to where you need to go more quickly...

-- Steve also wails and gnashes his teeth upon hearing "common sense" applied to macroeconomics. A nation is not a factory, and treating it as one leads to absurdities (and often cruelties).
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User: avt_tor
Date: 2010-03-02 16:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
A lot of things I've studied, from marketing to programming to journalism, are based on a lot of codified common sense; things that are obvious when you say them out loud, it's just a matter of knowing what to remember. I have a strong feeling that plumbing falls into this category too. ;)

A necessary aspect of expertise is understanding, and so an expert must understand what is important about a subject. One of the tests I use in judging others' expertise is their ability to explain their subject in terms that a non-expert can understand. In the exact same way that I can talk a user through solving a problem without me being able to see what's on their screen, I would expect a pilot to be able to talk me through landing a plane. He or she should know where everything is, what I would need to look at, and what order I should be doing things.

My expectation is that any politician should be able to explain any policy or position that contains non-obvious elements in terms that I can understand. If I am saying "WTF?" or "What about...?" when they speak, they aren't doing their job correctly, and that to me is grounds for (electoral) termination, same way I would treat any other employee.
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User: ulfhirtha
Date: 2010-03-02 16:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Oh yes - I want people who *know* what they are doing, or at least have seriously thought about it, handling things like my surgery and my government. It is the same reason I find the antipathy to "Capitol Insiders" at once both silly and dangerous. Sure, there's a risk of being corrupted in the bubble there - but then again I want someone who knows what they are doing handling matters there.For example, a Senator who knows the ins&outs of procedure, who to talk to about getting X bill on the floor and so on. The kind of knowledge (and in such environments, relationships) that only comes from actually doing the work. It'd be like continually training the new guy in the office, and just when he was settled and had it all down, can him & get another new guy. Not even a common sense way to run a store.

As an aside on common sense & common wisdom, SNL once had a game show skit where "common wisdom" answers won you points and not the correct answers - what's the capital of Virginia? Virginia City of course! I see enough "Jaywalker" episodes on Leno (let alone the past 30 years of Reagan & W especially) to make me very leery of anyone with my life and safety in their hands who relies solely on it.
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User: ex_truepenn
Date: 2010-03-02 17:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
To be fair, I think part of the reason that rhetoric is so successful is that we, the electorate, look at what congresspeople in Washington are doing and see people whom we would not trust to open an umbrella when it starts to rain. In my lifetime, there are so many examples of politicians behaving badly and stupidly, and so few examples of them behaving sensibly that I can understand the appeal in the promise to use common sense. Their expertise, if they have any (which frankly also frequently seems a dubious proposition) is invisible. Seriously--at least with the plumber, I can tell that he's doing something I can't; with politics, it frequently seems like a five year old could do a better job. (And, you know, kids in middle school and high school do model government stuff all the time; I've never heard of them getting to do model plumbing or model surgery.) So what exactly politicians' expertise consists of is possibly harder to see than with a surgeon or a plumber, and, honestly, common sense is something I yearn for them to demonstrate.

I'm not at all disagreeing with you, because I think you're right, just saying that I understand why "common sense" could seem like such a desirable trait in one's elected representative.
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barry_king: Strada
User: barry_king
Date: 2010-03-02 17:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've been thinking about this problem, too. Common sense usually means simplicity. To paraphrase Sir Humphrey, if you want to get a political proposal accepted, it needs to seem "simple, quick, popular, and cheap." But life itself is complex, long-term, dull, and takes all the resources you can put into it.

I'm always amazed that intelligent, experienced, and thoughtful people are amazed that patently pig-headed dogma is so broadly accepted. But it simply comes down to how well you can get along DESPITE the fact that you chose the simple, expedient, and popular solutions over the difficult unpopular ones.

Unfortunately, thirty years of unprecedented prosperity in this hemisphere means that we're now left only with difficult, slow, unpopular, and expensive problems to deal with.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2010-03-02 18:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
/bemusedoutsider here/

I'd think that some things are better than common sense -- and some are worse.

But I guess that's a common sense view.
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User: bemused_leftist
Date: 2010-03-03 05:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

Doubtless the GOP is mis-using the term 'common sense' for their own purposes -- applying it to measures that aren't common sense at all.

But concerning unprecedented current issues such as the financial crisis and climate change.... When the experts can't agree (and don't even share the same standards of accreditation), I'd look at an idea that's been shared by experts and laypeople for a long time: First, do no harm.

Carbon may not be causing harm to the planet ... tobacco may not cause cancer ... but decreasing them out just in case seems common sense.

Deficit spending may not help the financial crisis (as it did in FDR's time and WWII) -- but spending on health care and contraceptives and preventing foreclosures will certainly help a lot of people weather the crisis.

Is recapturing the term 'common sense' too plebian an idea?
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Amy Sisson
User: amysisson
Date: 2010-03-02 18:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well said.
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Kari Sperring
User: la_marquise_de_
Date: 2010-03-02 18:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The way US politics is phrased sometimes reminds me of the categories imposed in China under the Cultural Revolution -- red for the approved (the everyday worker and peasant), black for those opposed to the regime, and 'white and expert' for the intelligentsia and those with professional training, who were perceived as hanging on to privilege and status by claiming ability. The suspicion of the last category had disastrous consequences for those needing medical treatment, for instance -- the 'barefoot doctor' programme was very damaging.
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