John McCain’s Potemkin Candidacy — a science-ish perspective.

Matthew Yglesiashas a a post today that crystallized my sense of the idiocy upon which McCain has based his candidacy.

Yglesias writes that the formerly respected economist Douglas Holz-Eakin continued his pattern of inadvertent truth-telling about McCain’s lack of actual policy plans, this time in the area of support for college education.  DHE admits that the sum total of the McCain effort here will be…begging:

As president, Mr. McCain would take a bully pulpit approach to student aid, aides say. Rather than propose any new federal money, he would jawbone and publicly try to coax colleges to slow their rate of tuition increases using the federal tax exemptions they receive as leverage.

Also, we learn that support for Pell grants, the major federal support for low-income college goers, will be limited to saying that it would be nice if they were more valuable, without any money actually going to that goal.

What I realized reading this is that this is McCain’s entire approach to policy.  He wishes for things.  He promises “plans” that do not, on closer inspection, exist.  He clicks his heels and hopes for magic.

This is another way of saying that from a point of view shaped by thinking about and reporting on science, McCain’s candidacy is based not on any rational approach to problem framing and problem solution, but on magical thinking.

Let me give just a couple of examples.  McCain has, from the start of the financial crisis, railed against greed and corruption on Wall St. and has promised “to put a stop to it.”  But look through his website for any actual set of policy proposals that will actually alter the regulatory framework of American financial markets, and please, write me if you find anything that says what McCain would do to achieve these ends.  I’ve looked and looked and looked some more, and haven’t found anything.

Same thing with the War on Terror.  McCain says he knows how to get Osama bin Laden, but strangely hasn’t managed to get the message over to the Pentagon.

Same thing with his response to the housing crisis:  a promise not to let those who profited off the mortgage business get rich off the bailout, and a proposal that would offer only “deserving families” who could afford a new, 30 year mortgage on the balance owed a crack at a new loan — which by his own admission would benefit no more than 400,000 of the estimated 2.5 million foreclosures that could occur this year alone (740,000 were already in some stage of foreclosure by July.)

It goest on.  I’ve already blogged more than once about an approach to climate change that seems to depend on increasing the incentives for the use of more fossil fuels.  An approach to balancing the budget that increases the deficit and so on.

Compare all this with what it takes to do science.  The form of a scientific paper is often misleading, presenting a much smoother picture of the transformation of an idea into a result, but still, it provides a useful idealization of what it takes to accomplish something.

You have to know what you are trying to do, come up with a set of procedures that you and your peers will agree addresses the problem you’ve stated, perform the experiment, and report and interpret the results.

McCain’s approach is much more like that famous S. Harris cartoon, in which one savant has covered a blackboard with a thicket of math to cover steps 1 and 3 — but at the crucial middle stage we read “a miracle occurs.”  His colleague, looking over the scribblings says only “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.”

I don’t know about  you, but I’m too tired right now to be polite — I’ve just come back from my third trip to canvas in New Hampshire this week, and I’m waking up in the dark of every night muttering the names of swing states.  So let me just say that we’ve had eight years of a combination of thuggery and magical thinking and I don’t want one minute more.

McCain lacks the intellectual rigor for the job he seeks.  No one who has tackled a real problem and knows what it takes should tolerate the kind of contempt his campaign has demonstrated for the hard thinking it takes to lead.

Clear enough?

Image:  The Flying Monkeys by W. W. Denslow from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, also known as The Wizard of Oz, a 1900 children’s novel by L. Frank Baum.  Source: Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library

Explore posts in the same categories: McCain, political follies, Stupidity

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One Comment on “John McCain’s Potemkin Candidacy — a science-ish perspective.”


  1. Exactly right. And of course Magical thinking also very much informed (so to speak) McCain’s approach to health care.


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