Blinded by the (Establishment) Light

Jeffrey Goldberg is an excellent journalist. He’s smart, thoughtful and principled. None of the following should be read to suggest otherwise. I read Jeffrey Goldberg before, and I will continue to read him after.

That being said, I found these two tweets to reflect a broader pattern of misguided Trump criticism:


At some level, Goldberg is correct: if intelligence agencies = intelligence, then it’s bad to regard them with “contempt.” Intelligence is important.

That being said, a more charitable (and likely) interpretation of Trump’s criticism is that intelligence agencies (emphatically) ≠ intelligence. Trump is suggesting that the CIA (etc.) is encumbered by the same superiority complex, groupthink and detachment that afflicts other “elite” institutions in the “swamp.” Trump’s criticism isn’t so much directed at the agency or its function, but the people who currently wield significant influence within the agency (along the same lines as Trump’s criticisms of the VA, for example). [Update: Trump has apparently perceived the misconception, as well.]

As to whether the criticism is fair, I certainly haven’t seen decisive evidence of CIA dysfunction, but I don’t find it hard to believe. The CIA is, after all, comprised of ordinary humans, with ordinary ambitions, biases and needs, including needs for camaraderie, stability, self-preservation, and stature–precisely the kinds of needs that can lead to superiority complexes, groupthink and detachment. The CIA is also centralized in the same place where all the other federal agencies are centralized, i.e. it breathes the same air. It wouldn’t at all surprise me if the most influential people in the Intelligence Community were not in fact the most capable people in the intelligence community.

Goldberg would (I think) readily grasp the notion of individuals putting their personal priorities ahead of their institutional priorities (or rather melding the two), if say, the individuals were fiduciaries at a bank or a publicly traded firm. Similarly, it has become commonplace to criticize the Academy for cultivating ideological and cultural uniformity (through some combination of bias, self-selection and institutional design), at the expense of intellectual diversity and openness. The MSM is in the crosshairs for identical reasons. Sometimes being labelled the “top in your field” doesn’t actually mean you’re the top in your field.

So why is it so hard to disaggregate the individuals from their job titles when it comes to the Intelligence Community? Some aspect of it is clearly a form of status quo bias: “whaddoyoumean? It’s the frikken CIA.” Credentials and titles are useful signals–and Goldberg personally has very respectable credentials and titles–and while it’s currently fashionable to be skeptical of rank and authority, people still possess a healthy default respect for stature. I imagine someone like my father-in-law asking, “wait, you’re telling me that the CIA is also a bunch of politicized hacks? Where does it end?”

That’s interesting so far as it goes, but not what’s most interesting to me. Here my “interpretation” of Goldberg’s tweets becomes over-determined: I can’t say that Goldberg’s tweets are evidence of the following observations, but they certainly reminded me of them. The reason it doesn’t even occur to Goldberg that the CIA’s relative stature may not be indicative of the relative quality of its work is because the whole point of “public” officials is that they’re supposed to put petty self-interest behind them. They are motivated by the public’s interest, and not their personal senses of fulfillment, community, ambition, self-preservation, etc.  Or at least that’s the assumption, and for a “company man” like Goldberg (who operates on the same wavelength as other company men, like Barack Obama, for one), it’s a deep and enduring assumption.

I want to reiterate the point, because it’s really the whole point of this post: Government officials take great pains to hide their humanity–their calling is, after all, to succeed where private individuals failed. Their secret ingredient is their altruism: unlike private individuals encumbered by profit motive, public officials stay focused on the greater good. Governments exist to generously provide, where markets have selfishly determined to withhold. When you accept your government badge, you become authoritative precisely because you’re no longer in it for yourself. Accepting that premise is a requirement for fitting-in–the whole artifice depends on it.

The premise is nonsense, of course.

There’s a whole discipline (Public Choice) that studies government officials based on a different premise: that they are ordinary folks who respond to their incentives. The results are both highly predictive and highly unflattering. It turns out that public officials (constrained by political processes) are significantly less motivated (and therefore less likely) to serve the public’s interest relative to private actors who have little choice but to serve their public, one measly person at a time. The presumption that the government succeeds where the market fails is flipped on its head: it’s far safer to assume that if the market fails, then government will fail even worse.

Returning to the subject at hand, the takeaway is not “privatize the CIA.”  Rather, the (speculative) takeaway is understanding Goldberg’s reflex to interpret Trump’s attack on certain intelligence officials as an attack on ALL THE INTELLIGENCE. Goldberg simply does not easily view “public” institutions as comprised of private individuals, such that they are likely to be compromised in all the same ways (and many more) that private institutions are compromised. The CIA is the intelligence agency therefore it must produce the Intelligence (and criticizing one is the same as criticizing the other). That’s why we have CIAs and EPAs and FDAs and DOJs: to produce the unencumbered righteous truth. If Goldberg readily entertained any doubt that it’s possible to solve the hardest problems by establishing the Bureau of Hard Problem Solving By People Who Try Really Hard And Care A Lot then the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

To be clear, even deeply held biases are subject to exception. Goldberg knows more than most (including me) about how the intelligence community is capable of failure. But those are exceptions and not the rule, and in the ordinary course, he will not assume that failure is in fact built into the CIA’s DNA (just like it’s built into the DNA of private institutions, who simply have more incentive to fix failure). Instead, his deeply ingrained bias about how “public” officials function–a bias that justifies the vast majority of their role and stature–operates in the background to block out (or reinterpret) a fairly straightforward, and reasonable criticism of the CIA.

The more generalized point is that Goldberg reacted to Trump’s criticism the way most people react to market-oriented criticisms of federal agencies: completely whiff on the core critique (that agencies are market participants too and therefore just as likely (indeed more likely) to fail), and defend the stated goal of the agency instead (because it’s assumed that agencies are likely to accomplish what they set out to accomplish).”Why are you criticizing the EPA? Don’t you think the environment is important?”


3 thoughts on “Blinded by the (Establishment) Light”

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