Saturday, May 29, 2010

Just Do Something

A perceptive point from Dara Lind at Matthew Yglesias’s blog, about the Arizona immigration law and racial profiling:
…racial profiling is sometimes codified in policy, but it can also be, as I put it earlier in the week, a “habit of mind” — a heuristic. A police officer doesn’t need to be told to target someone who looks likely to be a criminal; the problem is what mental shortcuts they’re going through in order to determine what “looking likely” means. I don’t think of SB 1070 as a racial-profiling law; I think of it as a law that will cause widespread racial profiling.

The Arizona politicians who passed the bill don’t agree with this interpretation, but when asked by the New York Times, a majority of the American public did. But — as Matt pointed out at the time — they support the law anyway. This, to my mind, might even be scarier than the willful ignorance of Arizona Republicans; the public understands that SB 1070 will impose on the civil rights of Arizona’s Latinos, but they think that’s less important than the fact that it “does something” about illegal immigration.

This is a point with broader implications than just immigration policy. Let’s take the oil spill at Deepwater Horizon. There were important government failures prior to the leak, and these deserve to be criticized and corrected—and, moreover, moves must be made away from oil and carbon dependence. So let’s assume that.

There is, however, a constant call for Obama to do something when it comes to the oil spill—often, the most specific this call gets is that the federal government take over both the responsibility and the operations of shutting the leak and cleaning the spill—to which my question is “Do what?” What’s your proposal? What’s strikingly consistent, no matter who’s being interviewed on the subject in the news coverage I’ve read, is a puzzlement and confusion over what exactly can be done.

So if we don’t know what can be done, why demand that Obama not do it personally? I don’t trust BP in general and I certainly don’t trust their competence: but I do trust them to try stuff because this leak is terrible for them and their industry (which, incidentally, is also pitching in). Federal scientists and engineers can and have pitched in. And while this stuff probably won’t work, it means we have to wait for the relief well to be drilled.

This may not be satisfying, but the biggest problems rarely produce satisfying solutions. This may be one of these situations—if there is a good proposal, I’d love to hear it and I’m sure the administration and BP would too. There is one proposal we know will work for sure: nuking it. Somehow I suspect the “do something” crowd is not thinking that this is the something that should be done.

The dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s response stems from two American political traditions: the Presidential Omniresponsibility Theorem (in which all trends are ultimately answerable to the President, no matter how logically they can be blamed, e.g. “The Buck Stops Here”) and the desire for some rough justice—some poetic justice. It’s the desire to punish and do what seems right. That’s the same desire, by the by, that underlies much of the public rage at Wall Street. So it’s good that the public can hold a grudge. Just don’t let that grudge blind you from distinguishing which demands are credible and which aren’t. If you don’t know what the something is when you ask someone to just do something, chances are you’ll be disappointed by whatever something happens.

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