Misleading about Leadership

by Russ Roberts on October 15, 2007

in Politics

Thomas Friedman makes the case for the virtues of Al Gore’s leadership relative to George Bush’s:

Mr. Gore lost the presidency, but in the dignity and grace with
which he gave up his legal fight, he united America.

Huh? You can debate whether Gore should have or shouldn’t have fought the legal battle in the first place. But to argue that he united America is surreal. In his losing battle to change the outcome, Gore convinced millions of partisans that the election was stolen and caused them to doubt the integrity of the Supreme Court. Had the outcome been reversed, had he won, the same thing would have happened on the other side of the political fence.  Richard Nixon when given  information of outright cheating in the 1960 presidential election in Texas and Illinois decided to leave it alone. Gore makes Nixon look like a uniting visionary.

Then, faced with
what to do with the rest of his life, he took up a personal crusade to
combat climate change, even though the odds were stacked against him,
his soapbox was small, his audiences were measured in hundreds, and his
critics were legion. Nevertheless, Mr. Gore stuck with it and over time
has played a central role in building a global consensus for action on
this issue.

Global consensus? Where? There isn’t a consensus even in America about what to do about global warming, partially because the loudest spokesperson for the cause is a divisive political partisan. I think Friedman must have meant "global consensus among readers of the New York Times." The article continues:

“No matter what happens, sooner or later character
in leadership is revealed,” said David Rothkopf, author of the upcoming
“Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making.”
“Gore lost the election and had to figure out what to do with the rest
of his life. He took the initiative to get the country and the world to
focus on a common threat — climate change. Bush won the election and
for the first year really didn’t know what to do with it. When, on
9/11, we and the world were suddenly faced with a common threat —
terrorism and Al Qaeda — the whole world was ready to line up behind
him, but time and again he just divided us at home and abroad.”

Indeed, Mr. Bush, rather than taking all that unity and using it to
rebuild America for the 21st century, took all that unity and used it
to push the narrow agenda of his “base.” He used all that unity to take
a far-right agenda on taxes and social issues that was going nowhere on
9/10 and drive it into a 9/12 world.

This is weird on so many levels. First, Bush’s "base," identified by Friedman as the far-right, hates him. He spends too much, is too pro-immigration and hasn’t done much on social issues.

The implication of Rothkopf’s quote and Friedman’s assessment is that if Bush had been a good leader, he could have convinced Russia and France and China and Syria and Iran and Egypt to support whatever the US wanted. This is fantasy. The essence of "leadership" is doing unpopular stuff, stuff that goes against the consensus and that later turns out to be right. In Friedman’s world, leadership is about convincing people who disagree with you to change their minds. But disagreement usually exists because there is conflict. What benefits one group harms another. "Leadership" can’t make that problem go away. Leadership is about deciding which groups will prosper and which groups will pay the price. That is why power (and putting power in the hands of leaders) is so dangerous. It is a delusion to think that the right leader can get everyone to agree.

The war in Iraq may turn out to be the disaster it appears to be right now. Or it may turn out much better than it looks. Fault Bush for being a foolish utopian or for being unrealistic about what would follow the US invasion or for hubris or bad management. But to fault him for failing to unite the world is to misunderstand what tension in the world is about. The source of that tension is that some people want to advance at other people’s expense. No amount of leadership makes that problem go away.

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{ 29 comments }

The Dirty Mac October 15, 2007 at 10:14 am

It never ceases to amaze me that Bush's economic policies are continually characterized as having reinstituted 1880's style laissez faire.

Personally, I think Bush has been a terrible president. OTOH, I am afraid he may be the cream of the crop.

Methinks October 15, 2007 at 10:30 am

I agree with Mac. I don't hate Bush and there are things that I admire about him – the willingness to make tough, politically unpopular decisions that Clinton avoided, for one. However, the increase in regulation, farm subsidies and tariffs and the growth of government spending (to name just a few things) during his presidency makes me generally dislike him. Unfortunately, the political landscape isn't exactly littered with anything better and the Democrats have gone hard-core socialist while the Republicans have gone soft-core socialist. I have no desire to revive the 1970's and we seem to be the only country that does. Of course, that could just be the impression left on me by the leftist media which twists everything beyond belief.

For example: The media claimed that Greenspan and Milton Friedman were against the Bush tax rate cut. This didn't sound like Milton Friedman nor does it jive with what I know about the Randian Greenspan. Upon further research, I found that the truth is that both are pro tax cuts but against the continued rise in government spending that accompanied the cuts during the Bush administration. That makes sense.

mike October 15, 2007 at 10:56 am

T. Friedman is not exactly an authority on leadership, economics, or much of anything. Just read his book and you will know the limits of his intellect, his inability to see inside a situation, and his general laziness. He is only a Gore supporter from way back who can't help drooling on his shoes at the prospect that his hero won a Nobel prize (big deal, so did Carter and Y. Arafat) and has become the charismatic (Al Gore?) leader of a new pseudo-religious cult.

Gil October 15, 2007 at 11:18 am

I'd thought when it came to Gore versus Bush most people couldn't give a rat's arse.

kebko October 15, 2007 at 11:27 am

I don't understand why I don't hear more economists complaining about the public ownership of oil in the new Iraqi system. It seems to me that by putting the returns from oil in the political process, the country is doomed to be mired in war. Is there a single example of a large country with public ownership of a lucrative resource that has been a success? Isn't this exactly the type of context that supports tyranny?

Wouldn't it be better to, for instance, create a private firm, "Iraqi Oil Co.", with rights to Iraqi oil extracting, and give each Iraqi citizen 1000 shares that are tradable after 3 years. Wouldn't a setup like that completely change the mindset of the population & curb much of the incentive to capture the oil "for the Sunnis" or "for the Shiites"?

As long as the oil is a publicly owned resource, I don't see any plan that goes anywhere for peace.

Russ Roberts October 15, 2007 at 11:43 am

Kebko,

Vernon Smith proposed privatizing the Iraqi oil income as a way of diluting the attractiveness of power. I think it was seriously considered but was ultimately rejected. A shame.

muirgeo October 15, 2007 at 1:25 pm

Russ,

Boy was this ever a discombobulated mess of a post. Around the world it's the rare intellect who doesn't see the sharp contrast between these 2 men. That rare intellect, to hold his position, must debase the value of the Nobel prize, the scientific method, the spectrophotometric properties of the CO2 molecule and the idea of what it means to be a statesmen and not a politician.

"The war in Iraq may turn out to be a disaster…" may…may????? 1 trillion dollars later, 5, million refuges later….on and on I could go. Please tell me what disaster our country might have suffered under a Gore administration comparable to this one? You're seeing things through the myopic eyes of a liberal economics professor surrounded by similar thinkers. The whole world is much more diverse then this and they see these two men in a very different light. They know that good leadership brings people and countries together for the mutual benefit of all while poor leaders seek short sighted profit to the benefit of a few.

Methinks October 15, 2007 at 2:00 pm

Boy was this ever a discombobulated mess of a post.

Pay attention, Russell! That criticism came from the MASTER of such posts.

The Dirty Mac October 15, 2007 at 3:20 pm

"Mr. Gore stuck with it and over time has played a central role in building a global consensus for action on this issue."

He is the ideal guy for the role being a highly successful and prominent politician. The master politician knows how best to create and exploit fear to create a sense of urgency among the governed. The master politician also knows that a sense of urgency is critical because the "consensus" of today is unlikely to the the consensus a few years from now.

js October 15, 2007 at 6:11 pm

Gore "took up a personal crusade to combat climate change, even though the odds were stacked against him, his soapbox was small, his audiences were measured in hundreds, and his critics were legion."

Excuse me? Gore did not lead the charge of climate change awareness. He jumped on the bandwagon by spreading deceitful propaganda. Is that leadership?

Ubermensch October 15, 2007 at 7:40 pm

I certainly don't excuse the Bush presidency, which has been largely disastrous. But Gore is the very embodiment of the Machiavellian schemer. If one believes that the scientific method and Gore are in any way interdependent, then that person is well advised to study F. Bacon's Idols.

Mesa Econoguy October 15, 2007 at 9:18 pm

“Nevertheless, Mr. Gore stuck with it and over time has played a central role in building a global consensus for action on this issue.”

Excuse me? There is no “global consensus,” nor is it known if global warming is even real, much less a problem. He has refused to debate anyone (because he lacks the knowledge to do so), and has been held to almost zero scrutiny.

Dr. William Gray (climate scientist) doesn’t think there’s a “global consensus”:

"We're brainwashing our children," said Dr Gray, 78, a long-time professor at Colorado State University. "They're going to the Gore movie [An Inconvenient Truth] and being fed all this. It's ridiculous." …

"We'll look back on all of this in 10 or 15 years and realise how foolish it was," Dr Gray said.”

I can find a “consensus” of people who think free trade is bad, or who think Madonna is talented – so what?

There is a collection of easily influenced people (including Thomas Friedman) who bought into Mr. Gore’s secretive, fraudulent science hook, line, and sinker.

That’s not leadership, unless lemmings are led.

T L Holaday October 15, 2007 at 11:05 pm

"The war in Iraq may turn out to be the disaster it appears to be right now. Or it may turn out much better than it looks."

Please, please, please quantify this and make it a testable prediction. Tell us what would constitute "much better than it looks," by when, name odds, and let us wager. Say how bad it "looks" to you now, so we can know whether it turns out "better than it looked." Anchor those goalposts!

T L Holaday October 15, 2007 at 11:15 pm

'The essence of "leadership" is doing unpopular stuff, stuff that goes against the consensus and that later turns out to be right.'

Mercy sakes, what a strange conception of leadership. Someone who undertakes to persuade and then act is by this definition inferior in leadership to someone who has no use for persuasion and tells himself "history will be my judge." Such a "leader" will surround himself with yesmen and persist in a policy, and no-one will be able to assess whether he was a good or bad "leader" until the eventual outcome. What a useless metric: it will label alike a wartime Churchill and a lucky fool.

muirgeo October 15, 2007 at 11:40 pm

" But Gore is the very embodiment of the Machiavellian schemer."

Yeah Gore and Paul Revere…just schemers.

The problem for you guys is the assumption that people only do things out of self interest. At it's core that may be true but the concept you overlook is that for some self interest includes a feeling or appreciation that you left this place a little better then you found.

A schemer is a guy like Milton Friedman who's ideas when put to the people are consistently and repeatedly denied in favor of ideas more in line with those that a leader like Al Gore is promoting.

I truly just revel in the hate-fest being thrown at Al Gore this last week by the so called free-marketeers as they blow up in frustration at the repeated rejection of their ideals while assuming the modern day role of Samuel Wilberforce condemning Darwin the reluctant messenger.

muirgeo October 15, 2007 at 11:54 pm

" The source of that tension is that some people want to advance at other people's expense. No amount of leadership makes that problem go away."

That's false because the current days war profiteers and corporatist advancing at other peoples expense as you say are being reigned in by the new leadership with more to follow as the current folly and abuses become more apparent to the average Americans struggling to get by on less while their productivity is sucked away by those profiting off of them.

The current leadership is heading towards a fascist state. The new leadership, the people, will cut them down because indeed leadership does matter.

mk October 16, 2007 at 2:12 am

Rather than prove the points you argue for, Russell, I think this post proves the limitations of off-the-cuff argumentation to settle disputes in an unclear world.

To respond to some specific points:

Global consensus? Where? There isn't a consensus even in America about what to do about global warming, partially because the loudest spokesperson for the cause is a divisive political partisan.

From my readings, there appears to be a global consensus that anthropogenic climate change is a serious problem that requires significant abatements. I think folks like Lomborg are outside the mainstream. If you want to split hairs we could discuss the requirements for something to be called a "consensus." But for now, note that there are communists in America, yet it is safe to say there is an anti-communist consensus in this country.

There is as you note, no consensus yet about what to do policy-wise. But Gore's film doesn't really address that. Wait for the next book which will target that question.

First, Bush's "base," identified by Friedman as the far-right, hates him. He spends too much, is too pro-immigration and hasn't done much on social issues.

If you seriously believe that Bush has not played to his base then you are unfamiliar with Karl Rove's overarching vision of political strategy. This is not a controversial point. It's fair to say he's played them for suckers, but a big part of his strategy has been to play to his base. The idea is to break the country in two and end up with the bigger half (there are more conservatives than liberals in the US).

The implication of Rothkopf's quote and Friedman's assessment is that if Bush had been a good leader, he could have convinced Russia and France and China and Syria and Iran and Egypt to support whatever the US wanted. This is fantasy.

The essence of "leadership" is doing unpopular stuff, stuff that goes against the consensus and that later turns out to be right.

If Friedman is indeed saying this, then he is wrong. I am doubtful he is saying that. But he needs to be more specific.

I agree with other commenters that the essence of leadership is not "doing things that go against the grain." Leadership can include that, but should also include 1) doing popular correct things; 2) making "the right thing" popular through persuasion; 3) maximizing the chance of a plan's success by mobilizing all resources (including the assistance of partners where useful).

The war in Iraq may turn out to be the disaster it appears to be right now. Or it may turn out much better than it looks. Fault Bush for being a foolish utopian or for being unrealistic about what would follow the US invasion or for hubris or bad management. But to fault him for failing to unite the world is to misunderstand what tension in the world is about. The source of that tension is that some people want to advance at other people's expense. No amount of leadership makes that problem go away.

This is overstated. Leadership doesn't make that problem disappear, it does not even try to. Instead it mitigates the problem of divergent interests by increasing the chances of cooperation and support. Negotiation, rhetoric and geopolitical maneuvering are some of the tools.

What is the purpose of negotiation? First you find out what the other person wants. But if both of you want different things that is not the end of the negotiation, it is the beginning. You proceed to try to figure out an agreement that gives each person some of what they want.

One example of a terrible negotiating strategy is not to talk to the other party. Bush has pursued this many times with North Korea and Iran, with predictably dire results.

Keith October 16, 2007 at 7:08 am

"Please tell me what disaster our country might have suffered under a Gore administration comparable to this one?"

Higher taxes, even more spending than Bush, socialized medicine, the Taliban in Afganistan, Saddam in Iraq, a completely unrestrained North Korea, etc., etc.

"Yeah Gore and Paul Revere…just schemers.

Dude, get a room.

muirgeo October 16, 2007 at 9:55 am

Keith nothing on your list is significant….just more fear mongering and hearsay of what a Gore presidency would have done.

taxes;

They were higher under Clinton and the economy was far better

More spending;

absolutely contradicts the facts.

Socialized medicine;

Done right it will save Americans money, make businesses more competitive and increase competition among health care providers. Again facts show this in many countries that already have it. Hayek was also OK with it.

Taliban in Afganistan; and Saddam in Iraq;

Those are related disasters NOW under the current administration. Bosnia's outcome suggest Democrats would have handled the situation far better. Likewise terrorism in general was being addressed far better under Clinton Gore; See Richard Clarke's book, Against All Enemies…..You did read that didn't you??

Korea;
Any basic understanding of Clinton Gores policy versus the current one shows how ignorant you are on the truth of this subject.

So Keith….you couldn't come up with JACK and in fact the evidence suggest we'd be far better off had the Supreme court not handed over the presidency to Bush.

John Pertz October 16, 2007 at 2:03 pm

I am as ambivalent to politics as one could possibly be. I think the modern Republican party is just as monstrous a creature as their donkey branded opponents. I think George W. Bush is probably one of the least intelligent presidents this country has ever had, not that intelligence has any real bearing on the efficacy of the executive branch. Some presidents of much greater intellect failed to a greater degree than G.W because of hubris. However, foreign policy aside, has G.W's presidency been that awful? Maybe for some, looking past his foreign policy failures is too much. A fine position if one feels so inclined. Yet, I do not really see where Gore would of been any stronger than Bush. I see the same lust for warfare displayed by mainstream democrats as I do with the current regime. Honestly, Im glad we got the best of two crappy choices.

Methinks October 16, 2007 at 3:49 pm

Socialized medicine;

Done right it will save Americans money,

Socialists never do anything right because the only people ever attracted to such a system are either illiterate or semi-literate half-wits like yourself (over 90% of the Soviet Nomenklatura was illiterate) or just plain thieves. Everyone else just tries to get on the hell out of the country.

John S. October 16, 2007 at 3:59 pm

I think anyone who knows how this country operates would have to admit that had Al Gore been president on 9/11/01, the last six years would have played out pretty much the same way. Once those buildings were destroyed, it was a foregone conclusion that the U.S. was going to flatten some countries, pretty much just to make examples out of them.

Iraq was a convenient target. Its leaders had a history of defying the U.S., and Saddam had openly applauded the 9/11 attacks. The Washington establishment would not have let President Gore continue the ineffectual Clinton era policy of no fly zones and periodic small scale attacks.

Watch this video:

http://youtube.com/watch?v=9JE48XHKG64

Perhaps those who fantasize about an alternate history of the years 2000-2007 will say Gore was lying there, just trying to appeal to the hawks in his party. Well there were a lot of those after 9/11.

As for civil liberties, does anyone remember the Clipper Chip?

muirgeo October 16, 2007 at 4:38 pm

Everyone else just tries to get on the hell out of the country.

Posted by: Methinks

Yeah, they are just leaving Europe, Scandanavia, Australia and Canada in droves.
You're the one who is unintelligible. Honestly, how can you take yourself seriously when the facts show how blatently wrong you are?

Mesa Econoguy October 16, 2007 at 9:26 pm

He went for the superfecta…….and he nailed it!

Nearly every single post on this thread by muirgeo was false, or severely slanted waaaay left (based on false information).

The economic stuff was just offensive, not to mention false – you should be ashamed posting crap like that on this fine economics blog. Literally too much to cover.

Since this thread has degenerated significantly into politics, let’s just point out that 1) Richard Clarke is a documented liar, and 2) Sandy Burglar belongs in jail right now.

[I’m certain the economic history of the past 6 years would have been significantly different, i.e. miserable, under a President Gore.]

Al Gore must be proud.

Mesa Econoguy October 16, 2007 at 9:34 pm

Sorry, documented liar here ,

and belongs in jail here.

Stupid Microsoft auto-formatting.

Mesa Econoguy October 16, 2007 at 10:37 pm
brotio October 17, 2007 at 1:08 am

"I'm guessing the problem with housing costs has more to do with wealth discrepancy.",

"…a few with lots of money can get them entrenched in their seats over the will of the people."

"…when my taxes are forced by gun point to pay for their (Wal-Mart’s) infra-structure…" This one is especially funny, because Muirgeo is again advocating on this thread that others pay taxes at gunpoint for HIS health care.

These are just a few Muirgeo snippets from the past month, and another reminder

…quack, quack, quack…

that he hasn't answered any of the questions that these and other nuggets of 'wisdom' have provoked. I guess someone with such stunning intellect WOULD find Methinks unintelligible.

avidReader October 17, 2007 at 2:03 am

you had some salient points. in particular 'global consensus among readers of the New York Times.' Though you derail later in the article.
You claim that gore is unique in advancing himself at the expense of others, but ignore the neocon's pandering to special interests (of the military-industrial ilk) & diverting tax dollars to them.
you'll be pleased to know that we agree on the basic premise – friedman is a clown.

Methinks October 17, 2007 at 9:05 am

Yeah, they are just leaving Europe, Scandanavia, Australia and Canada in droves. – Resident Moron

I suppose I could explain to you that all of those countries are slowly abandoning their socialist systems because both companies and smart people have been fleeing those countries for decades. They have all experienced brain-drains of varying severity and an associated drop in economic growth. The problem is so severe in France that Sarkozy was forced to make a campaign stop in London. A very large Swedish cell phone company (the name escapes me at the moment) moved its headquarters to the U.K. to escape the confiscatory taxes (in the name of socialism) in Sweden. And, as usual, you are too thick to have noticed the great personal risks people took to get out of the socialist utopias of East Germany, Russia, Poland, etc. So, even though muirgeo may read my words in this post, I have no confidence that he/she/it will understand any of them.

Socialism is failed idea with a huge fan club. Unfortunately, the only people left in the fan club of a failed idea are drooling morons too stupid to notice that it has been a failure. Muirgeo is a fine example.

you should be ashamed posting crap like that on this fine economics blog. – Mesa

Ah, but that's just the point, isn't it? To degrade this blog, to drive people away. As Jon pointed out this summer, Muirgeo spends all its time trolling free-market and conservative oriented blogs.

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