Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

One could spend a few months reading all that has been said about decision-making – there is listing the advantages and disadvantages of each option, the two-column method, or choosing the alternative with the highest probability-weighted utility for each alternative (for the nerds) – or accepting the first option that seems like it might achieve the desired result, thinking you can fix things later (for the impatient and those with short attention spans), or acquiescing to a person in authority or an “expert” (so if things go bad you don’t get blamed), or just flipping a coin or cutting a deck of cards or whatnot. And then there is prayer, or tarot cards and astrology and such things – deciding what to do after examining those chicken entrails, which everyone knows are far more reliable than tea leaves. Or you can consider your cognitive and personal biases and do a bit of choice modeling, if that’s your thing. But sooner or later someone is going to ask you about some big decision you made, and just why you chose to do the one thing and not the other, and then chose to continue doing it. That’s usually when something has gone terribly wrong. What the hell were you thinking?

Those of us who have been divorced a few times are asked that question a lot, and the classy but embarrassing response is to quote Samuel Johnson – “For a man to marry a second time represents the triumph of hope over experience.” But that’s just a late eighteenth-century way of saying it seemed like a good idea at the time, even if saying it with a kind of rueful scholarly irony. On the other hand the Johnson quote also adds a patina of optimism – that hope thing. Everybody likes an optimist, and forgives them for making bad decisions, as their intentions were good and noble. They honestly thought things would work out, and did their best to make things work out – but it just wasn’t to be. Isn’t life sad, but wonderful, but in the end achingly sad, as we all must eventually concede?

Well, no – hope is nice and all that, but it doesn’t outweigh dumb and nasty. There was that Iraq War based on hope – ridding the world of that nasty man who had all those doomsday weapons, and was in cahoots with al-Qaeda, and then for the first time installing a secular Jeffersonian democracy in the region, with a free-market capitalist economy, and a democracy that would naturally be pro-Western and fool everyone and recognize Israel, and would obviously let our oil companies come in and do their thing.

That’s an impressive collection of hopes – and as absurd as many said at the time. It just took a bit of time, and a lot of lives, for everyone to figure out that, as seductive as hope is, hope doesn’t outweigh dumb and nasty. And this wasn’t like marrying that fetching young blond willowy ex-model, with more than a few personal issues and the intellectual capacity of a slab of drywall. There the damage, if it comes, is contained. Collective decisions are different, as are decisions made by the few for the many. After all, the only legitimate reason one might care at all about the personal lives of politicians – their sexual habits or their driving records or problems with anger-management or anything else – is that you want to know a bit about their decision-making processes. That sort of thing does matter. And we had our eight years with the guy who said he didn’t think much, or know much, or want to know much, but trusted his gut. We gave that a try. It didn’t work out.

But we live in a world where we often ask what the hell people were thinking, like those guys on Wall Street. What were they thinking? After the summer of 2008, when Bernanke and Paulson dropped by the presidents’ office and told him to bring in the leaders of congress right then and there, because if the government didn’t pump seven hundred billion dollars into the banks and investment houses within the next few days, the economy would crash here and around the world, those questions were bound to come up. There was the fix to the system – approving the funds just as worldwide economic collapse was about to happen – and then the inevitable questions of how this happened. And then we learned more and more about collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps and naked short selling, and market manipulation you could manage while naked, and massive proprietary computerized flash trading – which is how anyone made any real money in banking. What was all this? The questions had to come up. You really thought this was a good idea and no one would get hurt? What the hell were you thinking?

So they had to explain what they were thinking. And at Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith has an in-depth article on the culture of Wall Street – they say they are smart guys with smart theories and deserved to get incredibly rich, because of that. But the curious thing is that Smith opens with a quotation from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society:

Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold.

Some things cannot be defended rationally. Inventing specious proofs to defend those things will have to do. Then you say those proofs are universal. And everyone else shuts up, in awe of you. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Of course one of the things in the air now is the proposed Volcker Rule. If you’re a bank, and you hold people’s money and make loans – home mortgages and business loans – to make money, then that is what you do, and not proprietary trading in investment instruments you invent in brainstorming sessions over scotch and cigars, like those derivatives of derivatives of derivatives and bundles of collateralized debt obligations insured by fake credit default swaps. You do banking. That’s it. We do need to have a few actual banks left.

But Daniel Dicker, senior contributor at thestreet.com, says, to be honest, that’s just not going to happen:

Although [the Volcker rule] will never be implemented, we need to be honest about proprietary trading. I spent 25 years as a prop trader, many on this site have spent decades at it and we KNOW – although we never admit to it – what it does to markets.

We want volatility, that’s the lifeblood – the key to making real dough and when we have control of the product as well as the mechanism of the trade – well, honey – that’s the best. We are unstoppable and can ratchet those trades back and forth every day and plan to buy boats and big houses.

Anyone in the industry who doesn’t make the connection of prop trading with wildly overpriced assets, boom/busts, huge leverage, increased risks – many systemic – and COLLAPSES and CRISES – is not making the leaps between obvious cause and effect here. And WE should, because we have been engaged in it and know that it’s true. Meanwhile, nothing will change, so I’m buying more Morgan Stanley – that’s also the truth.

What were they thinking? They wanted crises, and the potential collapse of everything. Crises are where the money is, where you create the right proprietary investment instruments, and buy and sell them second to second and ride the tiger, extracting big money on the upside and downside of each wave of panic. What – you wanted good and noble? What were YOU thinking?

But Wall Street is one thing, and politics is another, and on Thursday, March 18, things were finally coming to a head:

Congressional budget analysts said on Thursday a broad healthcare overhaul would cut the U.S. deficit over 10 years and sharply expand insurance coverage, boosting the momentum for final passage in the House of Representatives.

President Barack Obama postponed a scheduled visit to Indonesia and Australia to help round up support on what is expected to be a close vote on Sunday on his top legislative priority.

House Democratic leaders unveiled the final changes to the overhaul, which the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated would expand coverage at a cost of $940 billion over 10 years and cut the deficit by $138 billion in the same period through new fees, taxes and cost-saving measures.

It was time for House members to decide how they would vote – no more posturing and preening or being coy on CNN or Fox, and no more sitting on the fence. It was decision time.

And thus it was time to consider the decision-making process involved in that vote. This was not deciding to marry the rather dim but fetching young lass, where not a whole lot of people could get hurt either way. This was a big deal, and the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein frames the choice that undecided House Democrats, both conservative and liberal, had to make:

If you’re a liberal House Democrat, here’s what you’d be voting against: Legislation that covers 32 million people. A world in which 95 percent of all non-elderly, legal residents have health-care coverage. An end to insurers rescinding coverage for the sick, or discriminating based on preexisting conditions, or spending 30 cents of each premium dollar on things that aren’t medical care. Exchanges where insurers who want to jack up premiums will have to publicly explain their reason, where regulators will be able to toss them out based on bad behavior, and where consumers will be able to publicly rate them. Hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to help lower-income Americans afford health-care insurance. The final closure of the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit’s “doughnut hole.”

If you’re a conservative House Democrat, then probably you support many of those policies, too. But you also get the single most ambitious effort the government has ever made to control costs in the health-care sector.

Of course Klein doesn’t mention the Republicans. They will vote no on everything, as a bloc, as they have done on all legislation of any kind since Obama took office – so there’s no point in talking about them. That’s what they do. That’s decision-making made easy. And they say that’s good politics – it seems everyone says that. They will ride I-told-you-so back to power.

But as Greg Sargent explains, it’s not that very hard on the Democratic side:

The House Dem leadership’s game plan all along has been to tell wavering conservative Democrats who voted No last time that they have now gotten their way – a bill with no public option, a bill with stronger cost controls, a bill that’s more fiscally responsible, etc.

Now the CBO has effectively stamped a seal of nonpartisan approval on this argument. Dem leaders are confident that the score will give these Dems the cover they need to vote yes. Indeed, Dem leaders are confident that many waverers will conclude from the score that voting “No” is no longer really an option.

But there’s that other factor. The abortion language in the bill has ignited something of a holy war among Catholics, who are divided on whether the legislation would allow the government to subsidize the termination of pregnancies, or whether that’s all nonsense. Groups representing Catholic hospitals and nuns have come out in support of the bill, and other groups representing Catholic bishops have denounced it, saying the bill contains restrictions on abortion funding that don’t go far enough at all. And at the center of this is Bart Stupak, the Democratic congressman from Michigan, who has led the charge to include in the final bill the tougher anti-abortion language passed last November by the House – his special amendment, where the government would make it illegal for any insurance company to offer abortion coverage if they wanted to deal with the government in any way.

And his decision-making process is curious:

In two interviews yesterday, Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak revealed a great deal about himself, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, politics and the internal workings of our “pro-choice” Democratic party.

First, in what shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, Stupak told Fox News that he doesn’t listen to nuns…

According to Fox:

Congressman Bart Stupak, D-Mich, responded sharply to White House officials touting a letter representing 59,000 nuns that was sent to lawmakers urging them to pass the health care bill.

The conservative Democrat dismissed the action by the White House saying, “When I’m drafting right-to-life language, I don’t call up the nuns.” He says he instead confers with other groups including “leading bishops, Focus on the Family, and The National Right to Life Committee.”

Digby is not impressed:

Good to know. The last people any good Catholic should consult are nuns. What the hell do they know? Much better to listen to Bishops who cover up for pedophiles and people who believe men should take their sons into the shower to show them their big penises so they won’t be gay.

Those are just the people who should by making the decisions for American women.

Well, that shower thing is true – everyone turns to the experts they trust when they have to make a decision.

But the Los Angeles Times covers what is really going on here:

Their numbers and influence may be declining, but American nuns demonstrated Wednesday what generations of schoolchildren already knew: They are a force to be reckoned with. By sending a letter to Congress in support of the Senate healthcare bill, a wide coalition of nuns took sides against not only the Republican minority but against their own church hierarchy, as represented by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes the bill. The nuns’ letter contributed to the momentum in favor of the legislation, despite opposition that is partially rooted in a disagreement over abortion funding.

“We agree that there shouldn’t be any federal funding of abortion,” said Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of Network, a national Catholic social justice advocacy organization that spearheaded the effort. “From our reading of the bill, there isn’t any federal funding of abortion.”

Moreover, she said, the reverence for life that underpins Catholic opposition to abortion also argues for passage of healthcare reform. “For us, first of all, tens of thousands of people are dying each year because they don’t have access to healthcare, so that is a life issue,” said Campbell, who is affiliated with an Encino-based order, the Sisters of Social Service.

She said Network, which has long supported healthcare reform, drafted the letter within hours of hearing that the Catholic Health Assn., which represents about 600 hospitals, had come out in favor of the bill last week. The letter was signed by the leaders of more than 50 Catholic women’s orders and organizations, including the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which says it represents more than 90% of the 59,000 American Catholic nuns.

Some decision-making is better than others. What would Jesus do? There seems to be a disagreement about that.

But bringing religion into your decision-making can be dangerous, as Alex Seitz-Wald reports here:

With this morning’s release of the Congressional Budget Office’s reconciliation package score, the House appears ready to vote on health care reform this Sunday. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) – speaking with Fox News host Glenn Beck on his radio show this morning – said the timing of the vote is unholy. He warned that Democrats intend to “take away the liberty that we have right from God” on “the Sabbath, during Lent.” Beck agreed, calling the Sunday vote an “affront to God,” and something “our founders would have never” done “out of respect for God”:

KING: They intend to vote on the Sabbath, during Lent, to take away the liberty that we have right from God. …

BECK: You couldn’t have said it better. Here is a group of people that have so perverted our faith and our hope and our charity, that is a – this is an affront to God! And I honestly, I don’t think anybody is like – “yes, and now what we’ll do is we’ll vote on the Sabbath.” But I think it’s absolutely appropriate that these people are trying to put the nail in the coffin on our country on a Sunday – something our founders would have never, ever, ever done. Out of respect for God.

And Seitz-Wald points out that on Palm Sunday in 2005, the Republican-controlled Senate passed a controversial bill to allow a federal court to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo. The House passed the same bill shortly after midnight on Monday morning.

And see Michael J. W. Stickings here:

If, as Glenn Beck suggested, taking the baton from Rep. Steve King, one of the more extremist Republicans on Capitol Hill, voting for health-care reform on a Sunday, perhaps this Sunday, is “an affront to God,” then Beck’s “God” can shove it.

Because it would mean that his “God” thinks that millions and millions of Americans, those who have inadequate coverage or no coverage at all, those living in poverty or struggling with debt, unable to pay their bills and put food on the table and take care of their children, should be excluded from America’s unfair and unjust health-care system.

He says this is an affront of a different sort, an affront to humanity:

If you want an affront to humanity, look no further than Glenn Beck himself, or the likes of Steve King, hardly alone in the GOP. But the real affront to humanity is America’s health-care system, and while reform wouldn’t fix all the problems – the Senate bill, with “patches,” is flawed and doesn’t go far enough but is not only much better than nothing but a significant historical achievement – it would go a long way toward making it far more fair and far more just than it is now, with power taken away from the interests of profit and given to those who at present have no liberty at all in a system that either denies them coverage, and care, or subjects them to the bottom line of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, providing them with inadequate coverage and care at exorbitant prices. It’s liberty, of a kind, but only in some right-wing Hobbesian state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish, and short, and massively profitable for those in a position to oppress the rest.

How is any of that “Christian”?

So how do you make the decision to oppose healthcare reform?

See the blogger Hack Wilson:

I would just like to say, every Democrat in Congress voting on this bill, in blatant and direct opposition to the will of the American people, as well as President Barack Hussein Obama, is a domestic enemy of the United States of America as stated by the United States Constitution and everything the Founding Fathers said. They should be kicked out of office, tried, convicted of treason, and deported. And I sincerely mean that.

This bill will nationalize one sixth more of the entire US economy, bringing the total percentage of private enterprise controlled by Uncle Sam up to a staggering 48%. In essence, we will be standing rank and file among the rest of the socialist nations in Europe. I’d like to say thank you, to ALL who voted for this beast. You were warned.

Yes, you have to stretch the definition of nationalization to make any sense of that, and its seems that we should make our decisions based on what the French do, and never do THAT! And that arguement is old and tired – those of us with French friends here and who have spent lots of time in Paris, and Avignon and Arles, and Aix and Rouen, find that argument laughable.

But never mind, there’s Robert Stacy McCain:

This charade is so twisted and bizarre, it’s impossible to calculate the odds. I think the undecided Democrats have been so relentlessly arm-twisted by Rahm and Nancy that they’re like suspects who, under extraordinary police interrogation, confess to crimes they didn’t commit.

Is he arguing no one ever does the right thing when tortured? Hey, you guys on the right – you can’t have it both ways.

And there’s Robert Stacy McCain’s American Spectator piece:

At this point, however, the arguments for passage resemble another Animal House scene, with Obama in the role of Otter when he announces, “I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part.” It remains to be seen whether House Democrats will supply Bluto’s famous answer: “We’re just the guys to do it.”

Hey – if you guys on the right hate Hollywood so much, a new rule, you can’t invoke Hollywood movies to make your point. And do try to make a coherent point.

But of course decision-making is hard, and Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog illustrates that nicely:

There’s a new Fox News poll out, and while it shows a solid majority opposed to health care reform (“Based on what you know about the health care reform legislation being considered right now…”), it actually doesn’t seem to be a horribly biased survey: the poll finds that far more people think President Obama is trying to find common ground with Republicans than vice versa, and a question Fox persists in asking, poll after poll –“Do you think Barack Obama is on television too much, about the right amount or is Obama not on television often enough?” – continues to skew solidly in favor of “about the right amount.”

The Fox pollsters are always disappointing Roger Ailes with the wrong results of course, but Steve M. points out this amazing pair of results:

In general, do you think Barack Obama has the right ideas or the wrong ideas for America’s future?

Right ideas: 52%

Wrong ideas: 41%

(Some of both): 5%

(Don’t know): 2% 

Do you think the Obama administration is in touch with what the American people want, or not?

Yes: 46%

No: 50%

(Don’t know): 3%

His comment:

If I’m reading this right, there’s at least a small percentage of the public that thinks he has the right ideas for America’s future … but he’s out of touch with what Americans want. Does that mean that these people believe he should pursue the wrong ideas for America’s future? That they don’t want him to pursue the right ideas?

Actually, this being America, I’m somewhat surprised that only a small percentage of Americans feel this way.

And given that, it’s amazing we can make any decisions at all.

But it is always like that. Despite all the science and psychology and cognitive philosophy that goes into examining how we make decisions, it does usually come down to it seemed like a good idea at the time. And it seems, with healthcare reform, there’s a slim chance we might get to see whether it was a good idea or not. And maybe that’s a triumph of hope.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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