“Terrorism policy, terrorism schmolicy–who does his socks?”
Michael Lewis’ much-discussed book Moneyball has, I think, often been misunderstood. It’s most often discussed as being about statistical analysis, or disdaining speed for power, or some specific conception of how baseball should be played. I think this is somewhat misleading: the book is really about the power of images and superficial received wisdom, and how the gap between images and real accomplishments creates opportunities for arbitrage. (Beane didn’t emphasize the drafting of college players out of an a priori belief; he did it because there was good evidence that other teams overrated high school players. Now that the pendulum has swung, he’s drafted more high school players.) Beane, as Lewis explains, was particularly well-positioned to see through the fallacies of received wisdom because he himself was a handsome, picture-perfect athlete who looked like a model major league player–and hence was drafted in the first round–but couldn’t actually play major league baseball. This is why, when a scout criticized a player’s body, he said that “we’re not selling jeans here.” Physical attributes are only relevant to the extent that they produce results. Tony Gywnn and John Kruk were terrific players; Deion Sanders was a terrible player, and Michael Jordan couldn’t hit AA pitching. That’s Beane’s crucial insight, and it’s applicable to far more serious pursuits.
And so it goes with George Allen, whose collapse is an object lesson in the dangers of an Althousian focus on irrelevant superficial characteristics over substance. Consider this acutely embarrassing in retrospect piece by Rich Lowry. His touting of Allen for ’08 contains very little about any substantive merits, and a great deal about his height, cowboy simulacra, and mastery of football metaphors. And the problem with this, of course, is that the cowboy image concealed a lightweight, largely inept racist who is in a dogfight to keep what should be a safe Republican seat (let alone a serious presidential candidate.) Yes, pesonality heuristics matter to voters (although one would hope that intellectuals would transcend rather than reinforce them), but they’re inherently unstable, and voters can be smarter than they’re often presumed to be.
But even worse is when empty suits selected to embody images rather than because of their ability is that they might actually win. If the Bush administration–which has been almost as disastrous from a principled conservative perspective as from a progressive one–teaches us anything, it’s that competence actually, you know, matters. To me, the definitive story of the Bush administration is the contempt that Bush had for Larry Lindsey–one of his few competent advisers–because he was fat (and apparently didn’t tuck in his shirts properly, the horrors!) And fundamentally Bush’s heckuva job cronyism all reflects the same problem; having no qualifications whatsoever for important positions is OK as long as you’re a Republican hack who wears a suit well. More than anything else, Bushism is defined by projecting the image of competence instead of possessing actual competence.
The point of my recent post, then, was not to hammer on Althouse (or Broder or Klein) per se–whatever chance she had of ever being taken seriously again outside a narrow cadre of glibertarian nitwits vanished permanently in a puff of invisible decolletage last week anyway. It’s that ignoring substance for trivial details actually matters. That’s way I have no use for Maureen Dowd even now that she’s directed her vacuous personality analysis at the man she helped put in the White House, and why I have less than no use for searches for “athenticity.” Having a consuming obsession with fat and trivial fashion details is harmless-if-irritating (and fun to make fun of) when you’re writing about reality TV. But when political power meets vapid ineptitude it results in the waste of trillions of dollars. And people getting tortured. And killed in futile wars. In our political leaders, triviality is far from a trivial matter.
[Image from MaxSpeak.]