Sunday, July 26, 2015


The op-ed page of The New York Times now occasionally features commentary from Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. His latest column tells us that American politicians aren't optimistic enough these days, to the detriment of the Republic. While I'd like to believe that Brooks is genuinely concerned about the nation's health and welfare, it seems far more likely that he's just looking for some sort of secret sauce that can be added to Republicanism to put it over the top in the next presidential election, so that the GOP victor can resume the all-important work of slashing entitlements and cutting the taxes on the rich.

(Elsewhere, Brooks's search for a special ingredient that will get a Republican elected president led him to write a book called The Conservative Heart, which purports to offer "a set of practical policies firmly grounded in the four 'institutions of meaning' -- family, faith, community, and meaningful work" that supposedly adds up to "a bold new vision for conservatism as a movement for happiness, unity, and social justice" -- in other words, the appearance of government compassion with as little actual government spending as possible. Yeah, maybe that'll gull the rubes.)

In the current column, Brooks makes the case for the value of optimism, but he can be a tad selective in his presentation of the facts; he writes this, for instance:
... recently, social science has shown a big advantage for optimistic leaders. In 2013, for example, Dutch researchers published a study in The Leadership Quarterly showing that a positive, happy leader is judged to be 132 percent more effective than a dour, negative one.
That would be this paper by Victoria Visser of Erasmus University in Rotterdam and her colleagues, part of a longer work you can download at the first link here. In fact, Visser et al. say that happy leaders are perceived as more effective, but actually aren't more effective:
The results confirmed our prediction that a leader's happy displays enhance followers' creative performance compared to their analytical performance, while a leader's sad displays enhance followers' analytical performance compared to their creative performance. Thus, both leader happy and sad displays can benefit follower performance, depending on the type of task that needs to be performed. Moreover, our prediction that followers perceive a leader displaying happiness as more effective than a leader displaying sadness was confirmed. This indicates that objective (i.e., performance) and subjective (i.e., ratings) measures of leadership effectiveness do not refer to the same construct.
People who work under happy leaders do better creative work, but people who work under sad leaders do better analytic work -- and even though people think happy leaders are better leaders, they're not.

Brooks also sneers at those arrogant Europeans for daring to question good old Yankee optimism:
The American attitude that all will be well often amazes our European friends -- and not always in a positive way. In The New York Times in 2003, a former adviser to the president of France derisively declared that, “The United States compensates for its shortsightedness, its tendency to improvise, with an altogether biblical self-assurance in its transcendent destiny.”
Gosh, what brought that on? Well, the date should be a giveaway --the op-ed (by Regis DeBray) appeared on February 23, 2003, less than a month before the U.S. began bombing Iraq. You think maybe DeBray had a good reason to denounce America's "almost biblical self-assurance" at that moment? DeBray went on to say that "Puritan America ... regards itself as the predestined repository of Good, with a mission to strike down Evil." Yup -- and I think we know how that turned out.

This Arthur Brooks column isn't as hinky as, say, the last Times column by that other Brooks guy. (Go here for Yastreblyansky's fine debunking of Friday's David Brooks column.) But what is the Times's bizarre attraction to truth-massaging conservatives in moderates' clothing with this particular surname?


petrilli said...

I liked the graphics. A snappy faux Warhol grunge screen texture. Pure primary red and yellow with a smiley face cut into a silhouette of Reagan. Very cartoony and festive. Like his foreign policy in Central America.
They certainly shared his rosey outlook down there. I know this because I remember seeing a newspaper photo of the Reagan-sponsored Maryknoll Sisters murderers at trial in El Salvatore, and one was wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. Always the cheerful one, our Ronnie.

Feud Turgidson said...

Steve M., this shouldn't detract from your post, but I suspect you've misunderstood the study A.C. Brooks invoked.

It drew a distinction between "objective" and "perceived" performance. So-called 'happy' leaders instigate or inspire subordinate performance that's PERCEIVED as good, or improved from what it was at some earlier time, or 'better' (more valued, more effective, more satisfying) than what's done by others in circumstances and towards goals thought to be at least roughly comparable.

The study did NOT say that 'happy' leadership which drew out a greater PERCEIVED creativity, actually also drew out objectively more creative outcomes or products. Why? Because happy leadership tends to encourages the 'happy idiot' POV and effectively encourages its proliferation. IOW, disconnectedly happy leadership tends to lead to irrational exuberance.

E.g. 'm thinking about a scene in the movie Margin Call, where the Kevin Spacey playing the group leader starts a meeting of his group by having them all applaud, just like on the opening and closing of the daily markets.

The converse works differently: it tends to disengage from that irrationality, and rather encourages activating a different filter. 'Sad' leadership encourages objectivity in analysis and perception, so the follower is more likely or better able to know, or know with relatively greater objective accuracy compared to followers of happy leadership, the inherent or comparative worth of an outcome or product, and be correct in that assessment.

Going at it another way: the happy leader's followers are more likely to come up with a greater number of relatively undisciplined (whacky) or unfocused (unsuppressed) strategies. That could be a very valuable thing for the writing staff of a nightly comedy and talk show.

But at the same time, the happy leader's followers are more likely to assess their work inputs and the work product that comes out of those as somehow better (funnier) than it turns out to be as played out for its consumers (eg. The Daily Show audience).

Who's in the best position to assess how the consumers/audience are valuing the work product? The live performer, typically the show's star, who, if something's not working, which he can tell by his own objectivity, can choose to resort to moment-saving tactics, like hamming or mugging for the audience, or een explaining what the performers were going for and confessing they failed, miserably - which will be accepted as to some extent funny in its own right AND will contribute to audience trust.

It's more difficult, maybe mostly impossible, to access wildly offbeat ideas with a cold dark Joe Bf&st#ck cloud hanging over you; but if that cloud gets replaced with a Philadelphia tavern sun, it's also easier to become self-deluded into believing your idea is genius when it's actually dross.

Victor said...

', faith, community, and meaningful work" that supposedly adds up to "a bold new vision for conservatism as a movement for happiness, unity, and social justice"...'

Sounds like something Hitle... the guy with the funny mustache, who was most unfunny, wrote.

And yes, America was once a "Can-do" country.
We fought WWII on multiple fronts!
We built highways that were the envy of the world!
We built new airport and laid new railroad tracks - and other forms of infrastructure!
We sent men to the Moon!

And then came sunny Ronnie Reagan, smiled his beaming smile, and said we 'can't afford to do' anything anymore, because we need to cut taxes drastically on the wealthy.

So, we went from "CAND-DO!", to "can't do...'

petrilli said...

Is there a conscious movement among conservative thinkers to build the intellectual framework necessary to support an outright rejection of objective truth and physical reality?

From the study:
"This indicates that objective (i.e., performance) and subjective (i.e., ratings) measures of leadership effectiveness do not refer to the same construct." IE, "perception equals reality."

I'm beginning to believe that conservative intellectual architecture has evolved (metastasized?) to believe that their needs and beliefs trump physical reality; that one is truly entitled to ones own facts. And they are beginning to say it out loud, in public.

From the famous NYT Ron Susskind article, 2004, quoting unnamed white house official:
"The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

At the time, I read it as just a One-Off Karl Rove snark. But the ensuing years are revealing it to be a prescient manifesto.