Sunday, September 3, 2017

Presidents as sources of comfort and solace

One of the often-made observations about the Presidency is that people often expect office-holders to serve both formal roles in setting and implementing policy, and informal roles in times of tragedy or crisis, providing solace or comfort to those who have suffered or lost family and friends.  Presidents have both formal and ceremonial roles, in contrast to, for example, the British system, in which the royalty is now relegated to serving ceremonial roles, leaving the actual governance to real governing offices.  That is a gross oversimplication of British politics, but it gets at some interesting issues in American politics today.

Does anyone remember the title of "America's Mayor?"  That would be Rudy Giuliani.  He was Mayor of New York on 9/11.  And he never let anyone forget it.  Basically, he just didn't shit his pants, and managed to help rather than hinder the clean-up and rescue efforts, while staying calm on camera.  That's something, though.  It wasn't enough to get him elected President, nor even a cabinet position in Trump's administration, but damned if Rudy didn't try, and the result was one of Joe Biden's best lines during the 2008 campaign, and an all-time classic in the genre of the "grammar-burn."  A Rudy Giuliani sentence has three components:  a noun, a verb, and 9/11.

Presidents, though, aren't at the ground-level organizing anything.  All they can do is try to make a speech, and hope that the people they appointed to the relevant agencies do their jobs.  When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, George W. Bush was hurt at least as much by the incompetence of his appointee to FEMA, Michael Brown, as by anything else.  Speechifying in these moments is of questionable value.  Speeches don't organize rescue or clean-up efforts, and they don't bring back the dead.  They don't push Congress to authorize new funding nor anything else, if we apply the scholarly works of George Edwards.  They just make a few people say, "gee, that was a nice speech."

The Gulf Coast continues to deal with the aftermath of Harvey, and may have more coming.  Donald Trump is... not well-suited to giving comfort or solace.  Mostly, he just insults people over Twitter.  The storyline I keep reading is a question of whether or not Trump will successfully comfort people.

I doubt it.  So what?  Let's put this in microeconomic terms.  Of how much value is a comforting speech from a president?  When we look for ways to construct utility functions, we look for ways to convert from one unit to another.  How would we convert from units of "comfort" to units that are more measurable, like dollars?  After all, one president can be more comforting than another, and I'm curious how much utility value we place on that by first converting to monetary value since that may allow for conversion to utility.  Obama speechified better than Trump, and he was better at the whole, "comforting" thing.  Trump is the kind of guy who might try to comfort a woman to "move on her like a bitch," but that doesn't count.  No, I'm actually asking, from the perspective of the Hurricane Harvey victims, how much aid money would they sacrifice for a more comforting speech?

If the answer is "zero," which I suspect, then we should probably get over this nonsense about looking to presidents for comfort or solace.  Microeconomic utilitarianism has the value of cutting through the bullshit here.

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