What's Wrong with Trusting the Best and Brightest?

Frank Rich is a wonderful, provocative, polemical writer, but his article on Obama's reaction to the BP oil spill is confusing. It pivots off a piece by The Atlantic's Josh Green, which argues that the Obama administration puts too much stock in wonks, data and best practices. Frank Rich issues a direct challenge to big brains everywhere, arguing that "[Obama's] most conspicuous flaw is his unshakeable confidence in the collective management brilliance of the best and the brightest he selected for his White House team."

Really? An Obama supporter thinks the president's most blatant flaw is his confidence in the folks he handpicked for top administration positions? That's a pretty minor flaw. Come to think of it, it's hard to think of a less flawed governing alternative. Ignoring the advice of the people you consider the smartest, most capable hands in the country, shutting off internal debate between your hodgepodge gaggle of selected geniuses, and turning presidential decision-making into a gut check is exactly the kind of stuff Rich spent the Bush years hollering against (and for good reason).

On the one hand, Frank Rich is asking the president to act boldly, "to wield the big stick of reform against BP and the other powerful interests that have ripped us off." He wants a big, activist government that feeds off "Americans' anger."* On the other hand, he disdains expert government officials in the same breath that he disdains the corporate leaders they're trying to regulate. Is this bizarre?

Nope. It's totally predictable. What Rich exemplifies more than anything is a typical recession-era mindset. He believes in the power of government even as he increasingly distrusts the potential of government officials to know best, or even do good. As an NBER paper found early this year, people during recessions tend to support more government action, but they have less confidence in public institutions. They want the cake without the ingredients.

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*Occam's explanation for Rich's point of view is that he simply wishes that the Obama administration had experts who shared Rich's reformist tendencies. It's fine for somebody to think that. It might even be right. But it's not a criticism of the virtue of trusting expertise, it's a criticism of the political ideologies of a particular handful of experts.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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