I heard that President Bush and the Republicans intentionally crashed the economy in 2008. They could see the Democrats would win the 2008 elections, and wanted to hamstring the Democratic agenda with an economic collapse. Just look what happened. It had to be on purpose!

Or maybe I read that in my Kossascope. (More)

Leaders and Stories, Part II – Intent or Improv? (Plus Kossascopes)

This week Morning Feature considers leadership narratives, stories told by and about leaders. Yesterday we explored stories leaders tell about themselves, and how those stories reflect their frames more than facts. Today we’ll see that the same is true of the stories we tell about leaders; our stories reflect our frames more than facts. Tomorrow we’ll consider whether and how our leadership narratives influence our other frames, sometimes in surprising ways.

I have heard claims that President Bush and the Republicans intentionally crashed the economy in 2008 in order to hamstring what seemed likely to be a Democratic administration backed by a Democratic Congress. In fact, I’ve wondered about it myself, though I’ve decided it’s probably not true. I think President Bush and his cronies were morally capable of doing that, but I’m not sure they had the power to make it happen on cue. More important, I have no evidence that the 2008 economic crisis was an intentional plot. It looks to me more like a disastrous and tragic Amateur Night at the Improv.

A Flawed Syllogism

“President Bush Intentionally Crashed the Economy” is an example of a common American narrative about our leaders. It shares some elements with a common conspiracy theory about 9/11 and some common memes about President Obama, and it ties into yesterday’s discussion about planning and prophecy. These narratives are based in a syllogism:

  • Lenny was a Leader on Project P; and,
  • Project P developed along Course C to Outcome O; therefore,
  • Leader Lenny intended Course C and Outcome O.

This is the flip-side of Montgomery’s disproved claim that he “never once had cause or reason to alter [his] master plan” during the Normandy campaign. Rather than a leader claiming prophetic vision and total control, this syllogism projects that claim onto the leader. It can be negative as in “President Bush Intentionally Crashed the Economy,” or positive as in “President Obama Plays 11-Dimensional Chess.” The syllogism is flawed because it takes no account of other influential actors, or of ordinary surprises and setbacks. It says Everything Happens Exactly As (They) Planned.

Systemic vs. Direct Causation

Let me be clear: I do blame President Bush and the Republican Party for the 2008 economic collapse. Since the onset of Conservative Autumn in the late 1960s, one of Republicans’ primary objectives has been undoing President Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s, progressive policies and regulations that benefited ordinary Americans. Those benefits came at the expense of the wealthiest Americans, who could not get as obscenely wealthy as they had before the New Deal, and have again in this latest Conservative Winter. New Deal policies and regulations not only benefited ordinary Americans directly; they also provided important safeguards against a full-scale economic collapse. Removing those safeguards made a crisis like 2008 possible. Add job outsourcing and increasing personal debt, and the mountain of government debt driven by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the collapse became likely. The Conservative Autumn and Winter destabilized our economy, and Bush-era actions stressed it past the breaking point.

So yes, I blame President Bush and the Republicans for the collapse, but I don’t think they intended an economic collapse. I think they stubbornly refused to recognize what made our economy comparatively stable since the 1930s. To borrow President Obama’s driving into the ditch metaphor, it’s the difference between speeding in a car whose brakes you haven’t maintained and ending up in a ditch … and steering into the ditch on purpose. The former is systemic causation, witless improvisation. The latter is direct causation, willful intention.

Fiction, Authors, Leaders, and Causes

Systemic causation may explain the 2008 economic collapse better, but it doesn’t fit the stories we hear and tell about leaders. Many of those stories are fiction, and at some level we know that no event in a fictional story is really improvised because the author wrote it intentionally. Some theories suggest humans invent deities to fill the role of Author in our real life stories. The dominant Western religions do propose an Author-Deity who is omniscient and omnipotent, where no real life event is an “accident” because the Author willed it.

Because we perceive events as stories, our frames for fiction lead us to assume that every major event was intended and caused by some leader. That in turn leads to a presumption of capacity, that leaders could make that event happen that way. The outcome itself seems proof; the event did happen so obviously the leaders could cause it. If we can propose some benefit from the act, like an economic collapse hamstringing the agenda of the other party … well … that’s motive, means, and opportunity. Case closed.

Meanwhile, back in Realworldia….

Motive, means, and opportunity may be enough in a mystery novel, but in a real-life courtroom and in political discourse we should demand more than “could have.” We should want evidence, and for “Bush Intentionally Crashed the Economy” – as well as for “Obama Plays 11-Dimensional Chess” or “Obama Sold Us Out” – the evidence is weak at best. Absent compelling evidence of direct, intentional causation, the better explanation is systemic causation. That’s true for the 2008 economic crisis, and for the courses and outcomes thus far in President Obama’s term.

Just as I blame President Bush and Republicans for the economic collapse, I credit and blame President Obama and Democrats for the successes and failures under his watch. But I don’t think most happen by omniscient and omnipotent “11-dimensional chess,” or a “sellout” whose tracks are covered by “Kabuki theatre.” President Obama and Democratic leaders adopt strategies they think are most likely to yield successful courses to good outcomes … then improvise as best they can when they meet surprises and setbacks. The actual courses and ultimate outcomes may be almost as surprising or disappointing for our leaders as they are for the rest of us.

As we’ll discuss tomorrow, this does not mean our leaders have no plans or are powerless. It means they’re human beings, not omniscient and omnipotent demigods. They can influence but not fully control events. Not in Realworldia.


Speaking of not-in-Realworldia, the Janitor Professor of Astrology looked at the stars to predict your weekend again….

Gemini – Welcome to the top of the heap. Please don’t pass gas.

Cancer – Bait is in your master plan. Or you could try fishing.

Leo – You see All and know All. And it gets your laundry clean.

Virgo – List every weekend contingency on a 5×5 grid. Try to make bingo.

Libra – Maybe those carefully-laid plans didn’t want to get laid.

Scorpio – You have a gift for improvisation, as proved by those pajamas.

Sagittarius – It’s a good weekend for weeding and cleaning. Nah, me neither.

Capricorn – Use this weekend to catch up on last weekend. Or the one before.

Aquarius – Procrastination is not a setback or a surprise. It’s a plan.

Pisces – Plan three new excuses this weekend. Or just improvise.

Aries – Your stars are at the Improv. It’s open mike weekend.

Taurus – You’re back at the bottom again. At least it’s warm.


Happy Friday!