Obama is a politician, not a philosopher

I’m glad to see Ryan Myer blogging again after a long break. His recent post does a typically good job dissecting the Obama administration’s ratcheting up the value of a human life used in cost-benefit analysis and regulatory decisions. As Ryan notes, despite their quantitative facade, such calculations ultimately hinge on subjective, moral judgments. But as often happens in these situations, the Obama administration insists their actions “utilize the best available science in assessing the benefits and costs of any potential regulation.” Ryan asks for greater honesty:

It would be great to see the Administration taking an open, straightforward approach to this. They could just come out and make a very reasonable argument that, based on their values, they feel that human life should be more important than it was under Bush. Instead, they’ve disowned the decision entirely, hiding behind a scientific-seeming method.

I sympathize with this request, and I’ve repeatedly called for simpler, more honest arguments. But methinks Ryan is a bit harsh here. Obama has not “disowned the decision entirely.” Everyone is aware that these decisions flow from Obama himself. I’m also pretty sure that everyone already knows that with respect to environmental regulation, Obama values life more than Bush did. Moreover, greater regulatory oversight is a longstanding liberal policy goal and it’s no surprise that Obama has been following through on it. The values are already widely known and so I’m not sure how much benefit there would be to Obama’s publicly vocalizing them.

As much as I would like to see more nuanced public discourse about science in decision-making, it’s a bit much to expect that from elected officials. Obama is simply doing what it’s his job to do–push his agenda with the best tools available. For better and for worse, science is often viewed as one of the best tools. And so it’s not surprising to see Obama deploy it here. Especially since hiding behind science doesn’t seem to be hurting him (and may in fact be helping), I don’t see how he can do otherwise. Sure there’s a bit of grandstanding and p0litical theater there. But are we really surprised? We are are in fact talking about the President. Grandstanding and political theater comes with the territory. Careful arguments based on logical premises is ultimately the realm of philosophers, not politicians.

Unless its power is diminished, we really have no choice but to accept that science will be used as a cover for politics and values.


  1. Hi Praj.
    No, not surprised at all. I viewed it more as an instructive, particularly blatant example of something that’s going on all the time. But I don’t think the argument/statement I was advocating (the human life should be valued more highly) is any more nuanced than the one they used to hide behind the quantitative methods.

    This example is particularly frustrating to me for a couple of reasons. One is philosophical: why is it somehow better political cover to be “hurting business” because science says so, than to be “hurting business” because we think fewer people should die because of shoddy regulation? For me the latter is far more compelling. But as your post points out, this is just reality, so I guess I should stop complaining.

    But the second reason has to do with how pathetic democrats look when they get into these situations. They think they can please everyone by appealing to science as a justification for their decisions. But that’s just ridiculous. The people/businesses impacted by this are not fooled by such logic. So, if you’re going to piss them off, you might as well preserve the moral high ground and take a stand for something important like human life. But instead they lose in the eyes of businesses, AND the take a pass on the moral high ground. To me it seems like a missed opportunity.

    Anyway, that’s my rant for now.


  2. Hey Ryan. Good to hear from you, and sorry for the slow response. Rants and complaints are always welcome here, as you know. I see what you’re saying, but I would be a bit more careful with the word “because.” I suspect that in Obama’s (and the public’s to a lesser degree) mind, regulation is justified both “because” of science and values. But in this case, I think it really is widely accepted that the Dems care more about regulation, and so they think it’s important to stress the science.

    I also should really know more about this from working at the EPA, but I think part of the issue may be that the wording of the statutes require some science-based number to change a regulatory process. And may that’s also why Obama stresses the specific numerical values from the CBA.

    But I agree that it would be nice to see more up front discussion about the moral values.

    Thanks again.

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