A continuing series (previous entries here, here, and here) about the kind of table-thumping simple-minded blather that you sometimes hear about public policy. It depends on drawing out very superficial aspects of the problem, and waving away the core difficulties with some appeal to optimism or courage or something. With reference to a Monty Python sketch, I call this approach How to Do It (HTDI).
Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond has described Boris Johnson’s policy-analysis process, which is pure HTDI:
When the pair discussed a ‘Canada’ style trade deal, ‘Boris sits there and at the end of it he says ‘yeah but, er, there must be a way, I mean, if you just, if you, erm, come on, we can do it Phil, we can do it. I know we can get there.’ ‘And that’s it!’ exclaimed the Chancellor, mimicking the Old Etonian.
In a democracy, what should be the relationship between leaders and the people? Last year Michael Gove famously offered a populist defense of Brexit against the dire warnings of economic experts: “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Donald Trump has obviously had great success with his idiosyncratic mix of doomsaying (“American carnage”) and pollyannaism (e.g. “You’re going to have such great health care, at a tiny fraction of the cost—and it’s going to be so easy”).* The vaguely conspiratorial premise — the spirit of “How to do it!” — is that our problems are all very simple, but elites are attempting to buttress their favoured position by making them seem complicated. (more…)
Last year I wrote a post about the kind of table-thumping simple-minded blather that you sometimes hear about public policy (what the Germans call Stammtischgerede), that reminds me of the Monty Python sketch about a children’s show “How to do it“, which explains to the audience in one two-minute episode
How to be a gynecologist… how to construct a box-girder bridge, … how to irrigate the Sahara Desert and make vast new areas of land cultivatable, and… how to rid the world of all known diseases.
When expressed by the male working classes the simple HTDI solutions that no one is willing to put into practice typically involves violence, stringing the appropriate people up, or use of nuclear weapons. It’s all vague blather, but needs just enough spurious detail to give it the verbal form of presenting a solution. I wrote in this post about the version of HTDI that tends to belch forth from mostly right-wing veterans of the business-lawyer-finance trenches, who like to think that their experience holding meetings and berating subordinates has been far more meaningful than actually doing anything
is the completely generic “I’d get the both sides into the room and tell them, c’mon guys, let’s roll up our sleeves and just get it done. We’re not leaving here until we’ve come up with a solution.”
I didn’t have a particular example to cite at the time, but of course Donald Trump has followed the script exactly. Speaking yesterday at a “National Security Forum”, Trump was pressed on his claim to have a secret plan for defeating ISIS. Despite having previously stated that he knows “more about ISIS than the generals do”, in a speech on Tuesday he said
We are going to convey my top generals and give them a simple instruction. They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.
It’s no wonder some Republicans think President Obama is intentionally betraying the country. If he couldn’t even be bothered to instruct his top generals to come up with a plan. And the 30-day deadline is pure genius…
I was commenting just recently on the cult of big ideas, where people whose life experiences have given them hierarchical power are suckers for “ideas” that are mostly blather, lots of words about the irrelevant bits of the problem, distracting attention from the real difficulties. And now Theranos is in the news. I read about this company, started by the obviously charismatic Elizabeth Holmes, in The New Yorker about a year ago. My immediate reaction was, this must be a joke. It was very much in the spirit of Monty Python’s How to do it.
Theranos, a Silicon Valley company[…], is working to upend the lucrative business of blood testing. Blood analysis is integral to medicine. When your physician wants to check some aspect of your health, such as your cholesterol or glucose levels, or look for indications of kidney or liver problems, a blood test is often required. This typically involves a long needle and several blood-filled vials, which are sent to a lab for analysis… [Theranos] has developed blood tests that can help detect dozens of medical conditions, from high cholesterol to cancer, based on a drop or two of blood drawn with a pinprick from your finger. Holmes told the audience that blood testing can be done more quickly, conveniently, and inexpensively, and that lives can be saved as a consequence.
Sounds wonderful. Quick. Convenient. Inexpensive. Saving lives. How is she going to do all that? Well, she wears “a black suit and a black cotton turtleneck, reminiscent of Steve Jobs”. She dropped out of Stanford. She has a board of directors full of highly influential aged former politicians, but no scientists, so far as I can tell. She “is in advanced discussions with the Cleveland Clinic. It has also opened centers in forty-one Walgreens pharmacies, with plans to open thousands more. If you show the pharmacist your I.D., your insurance card, and a doctor’s note, you can have your blood drawn right there…. A typical lab test for cholesterol can cost fifty dollars or more; the Theranos test at Walgreens costs two dollars and ninety-nine cents.” (more…)
One of my favourite Monty Python sketches is “How to do it“. It parodies a children’s show, teaching children how to do interesting and cool new things — in this case, “How to be a gynecologist… how to construct a box-girder bridge, … how to irrigate the Sahara Desert and make vast new areas of land cultivatable, and… how to rid the world of all known diseases.” The method described for the last is
First of all, become a doctor, and discover a marvelous cure for something. And then, when the medical profession starts to take notice of you, you can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right, so there will never be any diseases ever again.
I think of this sketch often, when I hear a certain kind of blustering politician, most commonly (but not exclusively) of the US Republican variety. The classic sort of “How to do it” (HTDI) solution is the completely generic “I’d get the both sides into the room and tell them, c’mon guys, let’s roll up our sleeves and just get it done. We’re not leaving here until we’ve come up with a solution.” (That’s for a conflict; if it’s a technical challenge, like cancer, or drought, replace “both sides” with “all the experts”. Depending on the politician’s demeanor and gender this may also include “knocking heads together”.) The point is, they see solving complicated problems the way they might appear in a montage in a Hollywood film: Lots of furrowed brows, sleeves being rolled up, maybe a fist pounds on a table. It’s a manager’s perspective. Not a very intelligent manager. Of course, it sounds ridiculous to anyone who has ever been involved in the details solving real problems, whether political, technical, or scientific, but it sounds good to other people who have only seen the same films that the politician has seen. (more…)