“Facts are stupid things,” President Ronald Reagan said in a famous self-parodying moment. (He’d meant to say “facts are stubborn things.”) At the time, a common criticism of the Reagan presidency was that the Gipper tended to ignore facts and act instead according to the dictates of ideology. Since then, sentimental revisionists have come to praise Reagan for paying facts little heed.
Although it flatters President George W. Bush to suggest he possesses anything so grand as an ideology, Dubya emulates the Reagan technique. But he’s advanced it one bold step further. Rather than simply ignore information, Bush and his minions have resolved to suppress it or, better yet, to prevent it from being created in the first place. The following three examples illustrate Bush’s unique contribution to the war against empiricism, which continues to escalate.
The Pentagon Spanking. In the January/February issue of the Atlantic, James Fallows reported that in May 2002 the Central Intelligence Agency began a series of war games aimed at predicting conditions in Iraq after the ousting of Saddam Hussein. This was, in light of the chaos that later descended on Iraq after the United States victory, a very wise thing to do. Citing “a person familiar with the process,” Fallows wrote,
[O]ne recurring theme in the exercises was the risk of civil disorder after the fall of Baghdad. … The CIA … considered whether a new Iraqi government could be put together through a process like the Bonn conference, which was then being used to devise a post-Taliban regime for Afghanistan. At the Bonn conference representatives of rival political and ethic groups agreed on the terms that established Hamid Karzai as the new Afghan President. The CIA believed that rivalries in Iraq were so deep, and the political culture so shallow, that a similarly quick transfer of sovereignty would only invite chaos.
This analysis turned out to be correct. One year after the invasion, Iraq is not yet self-governing. Back in May 2002, though, the Pentagon took a very dim view of the CIA war games:
Representatives from the Defense Department were among those who participated in the first of these CIA war-game sessions. When their Pentagon superiors at the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) found out about this, in early summer, the representatives were reprimanded and told not to participate further. “OSD” is Washington shorthand, used frequently in discussions about the origins of Iraq war plans, and it usually refers to strong guidance from [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld, [Deputy Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz, [Defense Undersecretary for Policy Douglas] Feith, and one of Feith’s deputies, William Luti. Their displeasure over the CIA exercise was an early illustration of a view that became stronger throughout 2002: that postwar planning was an impediment to war.
Because detailed thought about the postwar situation meant facing costs and potential problems, and thus weakened the case for launching a “war of choice” (the Washington term for a war not waged in immediate self-defense), it could be seen as an “antiwar” undertaking.
Back in the Reagan era, Defense Department employees would likely have been permitted to participate in such an exercise; if what they learned from it displeased Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, he would have simply ignored it. In the Bush administration, though, Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon boldly declared it unpatriotic merely to know how the war games turned out.
The Medicare Lockdown. In a recent series of articles for Knight-Ridder, Tony Pugh reported that Medicare’s chief actuary, Richard Foster, was ordered last June by Medicare administrator Tom Scully not to share with members of Congress his estimate that the then-pending Medicare drug bill would cost $156 billion more than they’d been led to believe. (After Congress passed the bill, the White House budget office revised its formal estimate by $139 billion.) According to Foster, Scully threatened to fire him if he showed his cost estimate to anyone in Congress. Foster considered resigning in protest.
Scully, now a health care lobbyist in the Washington office of the law firm Alston & Bird, told Pugh that he’d stopped Foster only on one specific Democratic request that was blatantly political in nature. Otherwise, he said,
I don’t think he ever felt—I don’t think anybody [in the actuary’s office] ever felt—that I restricted access. … I think it’s a very nice tradition that [the actuary] is perceived to be very nonpartisan and very accessible, and I continued that tradition.
Scully told Pugh that the Democrats’ chief lawyer on the Senate Finance Committee, Liz Fowler, would back him up. But Fowler told Pugh, “He’s a liar.”
The Medicare Lockdown refines the Pentagon Spanking in two ways:
1.) The political hack in question blocked information output, not input. Prohibiting output is worse than prohibiting input because when you prohibit input there’s at least the hope that a third party (say, the CIA) will make use of the shunned information. When you prohibit output, nobody gets the information. According to White House spokesman Scott McClellan, not even President Bush had a clue that his Medicare bill cost in excess of $100 billion more than he’d thought until long after he signed it into law.2.) The penalty for disobedience was not reprimand, but firing, which is self-evidently worse. (Scully told the Washington Post, “I never said to Rick, I’m going to fire him,” except in jest. What a kidder!)
The EPA End Run. Tom Hamburger and Alan C. Miller reported in the March 16 Los Angeles Times that Environmental Protection Agency staffers were told not to perform routine scientific and economic analysis for a proposed regulation governing mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants. According to EPA veterans consulted by Hamburger and Miller, this is unprecedented for a major rulemaking. Russell Train, a Republican who headed the EPA during the Nixon and Ford presidencies, called it “outrageous.”
Because the blatantly pro-industry nature of the mercury rule generated considerable protest, EPA administrator Michael Leavitt has now called for additional study, including the type of analysis that should have been done before the rule was proposed. (Leavitt, incidentally, was not administrator when the End Run took place; Christine Todd Whitman was. She says she was unaware of the End Run and would have intervened had she known.)
The instruction not to perform scientific and economic analysis came from William Wehrum, a high-ranking aide to Jeffrey R. Holmstead, the EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation. Holmstead was present when Wehrum rendered his pronouncement and remained silent while EPA staffers objected. This resolute stance may owe something to the fact that Holmstead and Wehrum, before coming to the EPA, were attorneys at the law firm Latham & Watkins, where Holmstead represented a utility group called the Alliance for Constructive Air Policy. As it happens, several paragraphs in the proposed rule were lifted word-for-word from a memo prepared by Latham & Watkins.
The EPA End Run carries the logic of the Medicare Lockdown one exquisite step further. Rather than prevent the dissemination of information, Holmstead and Wehrum took care that no such information be generated in the first place. Why worry about having to discipline employees who share their work with others? When there’s no information, there’s nothing to share.
Where will the Bush administration go from here? Can the war against empiricism be advanced any further? Experience would suggest not. But what is experience if not empirical fact? The ignoramus has reasons that the wonk knows not of.